$5.4 Billion Melanesian ocean economy in peril

That Melanesian Pacific island economies are heavily reliant on the ocean is hardly a surprise. But a new report by WWF has quantified the annual economic output from the region’s waters – what they term Gross Marine Product (GMP) – at $5.4 billion – a sum equivalent to the combined GDP of Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

The Reviving Melanesia’s Ocean Economy report was produced in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the Global Change Institute (GCI) at the University of Queensland. It aims to highlight the need for urgent action to safeguard Melanesia’s marine resources in the face of threats like climate change, over-fishing and pollution.

Fisheries account for half of Melanesia’s marine-derived economic output according to the report. Projections suggest that by 2030 the region will need 60% more fish to feed its rapidly growing population – yet stocks are projected to decline not increase. Since most coastal fishing in Melanesia is subsistence based, there is the very real prospect of a nutritional shortfall that will affect millions of people.

“There is no doubt the ocean has delivered the majority of food, livelihoods and economic activity for Melanesia for a very long time,” says the report’s lead author Ove Hoegh Guldberg of the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland. “Given some of the troubling trends in the status of the ecosystems that generate these benefits, however, the question is now: how long will these benefits last?”

The data on negative impacts is alarming. Natural assets from coral reefs to mangroves to sea grass meadows are all under intense pressure. 57% of reefs in the South Pacific face medium to high level threats from human impacts, while ocean warming and acidification could see them disappearing altogether by 2050. Mangroves that provide a host of services including protection from storms, are being cleared to make way for coastal development. Rates of sea level rise are three to four times higher in Melanesia than the global average and already some populations are preparing to evacuate their island homes.

By conflating ecosystem with economy, the report not only quantifies Melanesia’s ocean assets (a ‘shared wealth fund’ worth half a trillion dollars based on what the authors describe as conservative estimates), but suggests those assets are being squandered. It also warns that future investments should be considered carefully. The authors single out seabed mining for example as a potentially lucrative emerging industry in the short term, but one that could threaten marine life while providing little benefit to local communities.

“With this analysis, no one can be in any doubt about the importance of carefully managing the ocean assets that underpin so much of the Melanesian economy,” says Marty Schmit of BCG. “A prudent economic approach would see strong conservation actions rolled out across Melanesia to secure its natural assets.”

That means applying the principles of a blue economy -one that sustains the ocean’s natural capital while providing long term social and economic benefits. Practical measures include establishing more marine protected areas, improving fisheries practices, slowing climate change and investing in education and gender equality.

According to Kesaia Tabunakawai, WWF’s Pacific Representative, the region’s political leaders need to act urgently and comprehensively to prevent a crisis. “We have seen good commitments in the past but the objective analysis shows that we are running out of time and need action at a much greater scale and urgency if Melanesia is to have a healthy and prosperous future.”

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