The health of our oceans is under threat from the effects of climate change, overfishing and pollution- specifically plastic pollution. And it can get worse; a 2016 study The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics stated that there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050. The study- noted that in 2016 there were 150 million tons of plastics in the oceans and by 2050 it could be as high as 850-950 million tons.
This is a major concern for the tourism sector in the Pacific, because our pristine environment is one of the offerings that the region banks on and markets to attract visitors to our shores.
The mandate of the South Pacific Tourism Organization is to market and develop sustainable tourism in the region and to assist our Pacific Island members achieve growth in their national economies via the tourism sector. We also collaborate and undertake innovative partnerships to ensure sustainable tourism development for our members.
Last year, SPTO embarked on an innovative approach that could ensure sustainable management and conservation of sharks using both traditional and scientific knowledge. We were invited by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Pacific Office to collaborate in supporting the My Fiji Shark project. Our role was to market the project to members and stakeholders. We accepted the invitation as it contributed to one of the Sustainable Development Goals that SPTO and its members contribute to achieving - Goal 14- Life below water.
My Fiji Shark is an initiative by Beqa Adventure Divers which operates a dive company in Fiji’s first and only marine sanctuary for sharks, the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. It is located in the Beqa Passage, off the coast of Viti Levu. My Fiji Shark offers divers, interested individuals and organizations an opportunity to adopt a shark from US$50, for that fee the person adopting names the shark, gets a picture of said shark and quarterly activity reports. The proceeds from the project support shark conservation practices and research.
SPTO supported My Fiji Shark Project by inviting our partners and the media to pledge their backing; we also adopted a shark and called it Batman. More recently we engaged three Fiji-based social influencers to post and tweet about the project, ocean conservation, protecting sharks and related issues on various social media platforms.
SPTO recognized that we could do so much more with UNDP in terms of creating sustainable livelihoods for the traditional owners of Fiji’s Shark Reef Marine Reserve- the people of Galoa and Wainiyabia villages in the province of Serua. The communities currently receive money and other support from the Beqa Adventure Divers for the use of the reserve.
Our activity was a Plastic Repurposing workshop funded by UNDP to support community livelihoods through plastic recycling activities that contribute to the conservation and protection of sharks and the entire marine ecosystem. SPTO saw this as an avenue to strengthen community engagement and participation in the tourism industry and contribute to women’s economic empowerment.
Last week 15 women from Galoa attended the two-day plastic repurposing workshop conducted by renowned local artisan, Warwick Marlow. He taught them to convert discarded plastic bottles into jewelry and decor. The bottles were collected from resorts and hotels in Pacific Harbor and also donated by bottled water company, Pleass Beverages.
After the workshop the women received tools and a plan is in place for quality checks for the items before they are supplied to outlets identified by SPTO. The artisans also have the choice to sell to tourists who visit Pacific Harbor and their village.
While closing the workshop I was reminded of the adage “one man's trash is another man's treasure,” and how it applied in this instance. Women trained to convert plastic bottles into art pieces and earn money for their efforts, whilst clearing plastic from the ocean and in particular the Shark Reef Marine Reserve.
My Fiji Shark and the plastic repurposing workshop are examples of how the tourism sector can work with development partners, private sector and communities to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals such as Goal 1- No Poverty, Goal 5- Gender Equality, Goal 8- Decent Work & Economic Growth, Goal 12- Responsible Consumption and Production and Goal 14- Life below Water.
During the inaugural Oceans Conference in 2017, UN Secretary-General Antonio said oceans are the "the lifeblood of our planet.” Yes, the ocean, Moana is the lifeblood of the Pacific, it is our common identity without it we lose more than economic opportunities, we lose our cultural identities.
It is time that we the people of the Pacific turn the tide and solve the problems we created or inherited. We espouse to the “Blue Pacific”, let us collectively support programs that protect our people, our pristine environment and our way of life.
Christopher Cocker is the CEO of the South Pacific Tourism Organization