The Oceania region covers over 100 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. Mostly vast ocean expanses, the small Pacific island countries and territories comprise only 2% of the regional area. The Pacific has three recognized global biodiversity hotspots: East Melanesia, New Caledonia and Polynesia-Micronesia, as well as numerous ‘cool spots’ of high regional significance.
The region’s natural heritage unfolds as a rich ecological canvas spanning mountain rainforests and cloud forests, lowland rainforests and open woodlands to open grass savannahs, mangrove and littoral forests, salt marshes and mudflats, freshwater lakes and streams, coastal marine ecosystems and seagrass beds, as well as fringing and barrier reefs and deep ocean areas. The thousands of rocky islets, coral atolls and volcanic islands of the Pacific region host exceptionally high numbers of plant and bird species found nowhere else on earth. However, small islands and their inhabitants have evolved in isolation and are naturally vulnerable when exposed to new ecological threats, such as invasive species and rapid shifts in climate.
Communities in the Pacific are highly dependent on land, coastal and marine resources that form an intrinsic part of their culture, tradition, history, way of life and livelihoods. Any loss of biodiversity has negative effects on food and energy security, health and material wealth and the adequate functioning of ecosystems. It also influences social structures and behaviours.
Main threats and challenges
Some 10 million people live throughout the Pacific island countries and territories of Oceania, with population growth high at over 3%. Moving away from rural and coastal living leads to a reduction in historical and cultural connections to the environment and traditional subsistence practices.
Climate change is arguably the main environmental threat facing the region. Rising sea levels, intensifying storms and ocean acidification are already altering ecosystems and human lifestyles at a noticeable rate.
Overexploitation of natural resources, such as deep sea and coastal fisheries and timber, occurs with limited monitoring of impact. An increase in terrestrial and marine mining interests, commercial scale agriculture and infrastructure development results in habitat degradation and loss. Compounding impacts on natural systems occur when invasive species gain a foothold and quickly out-compete local species that are already struggling under a variety of environmental pressures.
Human and financial resources for natural resource management are limited, a result of high population growth coupled with low economic growth. Governments in the Pacific are also small, resulting in limited human resource capacity.
Protected areas in the Pacific region
While a few Pacific countries are making great strides toward achieving their terrestrial and marine protected area targets, the average regional protected area coverage is below target and often does not coincide with the most important biodiversity areas. National system planning for protected areas is limited in most countries and management resources and capacity is generally inadequate.
Protected areas in the Pacific region exist under a variety of IUCN categories, tenure and governance models, and other effective conservation measures, and include: formal national reserves and marine parks; customary ownership; recreation, forest and heritage reserves; water catchment and other infrastructure holdings, and privately owned and tourism related areas.
Most significantly, communities in the region, who in most cases are customary owners of the land, inshore areas and natural resources therein, are the lynchpin in achieving wise resource management. This type of conservation practice is well exemplified by the extensive networks of locally managed coastal and marine areas. Some 12,000sq km of community based systems of marine resource management involving over 500 communities in 15 countries and territories contribute to livelihood and conservation objectives based on traditional knowledge and customary tenure and governance.
Against a background of customary use and limited national government resources, the development of suitable co- management arrangements will be an important focus for countries attempting to meet their CBD commitments. Notably, some Pacific countries are making impressive steps to assigning protection status over their marine Exclusive Economic Zones – areas over which they have direct governance powers.