Two vendors at a fish market in Sigatoka, Fiji. Photo by: john.trif on Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

While the coronavirus continues its deadly progress in countries and cities around the world, some small island developing states in the Commonwealth are cautiously lifting lockdowns and relaxing their preventive measures.

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic lessens on their shores, these islands are now gearing up for the long road toward economic recovery. In these uncertain times, it is more critical than ever for these oceanic nations to manage their greatest natural resource sustainably and strategically.

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Just weeks ago, the South Pacific nation of Fiji declared it was coronavirus-free after the last remaining positive case was given the all-clear by health officials. Seychelles also recently announced it had overcome the virus, as did St. Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. In fact, of the 12 countries globally that still have not reported a single confirmed case of COVID-19, 10 are small island nations in the Pacific.

These small island developing states — more appropriately labeled as “big ocean states” due to their huge marine territories — have benefited from the vast ocean spaces surrounding them, which have blunted the impact of COVID-19. Swift and decisive steps by governments to seal their borders and take action — even before any domestic cases were reported — have helped keep the virus from spreading across these vulnerable populations.

However, low numbers of cases have not saved these islands from the devastating economic fallout of the pandemic, triggered by halted air travel, border closures, and worldwide lockdowns. Before COVID-19, the global ocean-based economy was worth an estimated $3 trillion to $6 trillion per year, supporting the livelihoods of more than 3 billion people. Amid the outbreak, both tourism and fish exports are estimated to shrink globally by about a third, putting developing island economies on the course toward a deep recession.

For ocean states that rely heavily on the sea for food, income, and economic development — in addition to shaping their cultural norms and identity — the ocean will yet hold the key to their recovery. But they must take the opportunity to act as boldly and decisively as they first reacted to the virus.

As pointed out by Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, this means reforming national development strategies to support robust blue and green economies that will deliver a lasting shift to sustainability and resilience in the long term. The post-coronavirus era is a time for big ocean states to “build back bluer” and put into action innovative and resilient solutions that utilize their vast resources in a way that will benefit generations to come.

Already, these island nations are launching bold and innovative initiatives to protect and better manage their ocean wealth and resources. Fiji, for instance, has recently engaged with Allen Coral Atlas creators Vulcan Inc. to map more than 1,120 square kilometers of coral reefs, with the ultimate aim of setting aside 30% of the ocean it controls — about 1.3 million square kilometers — as legally protected areas. A partnership between Vulcan and the Commonwealth is helping these coastal states benefit from access to this powerful mapping tool.

In March, Seychelles also announced it had completed the scientific, legal, and political groundwork to map out nearly a third of its ocean territory as marine protected areas under its “blue economy” strategy. It will not only allow marine life to thrive and fish stocks to replenish, but will also encourage sustainable ecotourism to help visitors appreciate nature and learn about conservation efforts.

This work on marine protected areas was financed through an innovative “debt-for-nature swap,” co-designed by the government of Seychelles and The Nature Conservancy. It saw Seychelles’ sovereign debt repayments reduced in exchange for the country’s investment in ocean and climate action — including marine protection.

From climate smart agriculture in the eastern Caribbean states to virtual reality-based tourism in the Maldives, these innovative solutions should be strengthened, refined, and shared across borders in the interest of promoting more robust blue economies in a post-coronavirus world.

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is a platform for sharing and scaling up such solutions among its 54 members — 25 of which are big ocean states. Through a unique model focused on active collaboration among country-led action groups, the Commonwealth Secretariat and partners in business, academia, philanthropy, and science networks, the Blue Charter empowers small states to build back better — and bluer — from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a global community, we must all seize this opportunity to make transformational changes in our attitude toward ocean management, for the sake of blue economies across the planet.

Visit the Turning the Tide series for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

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About the author

  • Nicholas Hardman-Mountford

    Nicholas Hardman-Mountford is the head of oceans and natural resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat. To learn more about the Commonwealth Blue Charter, visit https://bluecharter.thecommonwealth.org.