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Analyzing Maritime Security: Capacity Building in the Western Indian Ocean

Introducing SAFE SEAS: Analyzing Maritime Security Capacity Building in the Western Indian Ocean

Principal Investigator: Dr Christian Bueger, Cardiff University


June 2017

4 Treatments to Improve the Health of the Mesoamerican Reef

Recent scientific reports have shown 56% of the coral area of the world’s second longest barrier reef to be in “poor” or “critical” condition along its Mexican coastline1. Having been heavily impacted by Hurricane Wilma in 2006, coral recovery on the Mesoamerican Reef is being limited by several pressures, including that of declining regional water quality. A ‘fleshy’ macroalgae, that colonizes hard substrate quickly in low quality water, is overgrowing patches of previously healthy reef, preventing corals growing in those areas. If the massive natural structure were human, it would be on its way to the emergency room and close to needing life support. Yet, while its immediate prognosis is not good, now is not the time to be writing an obituary for the Mesoamerican Reef.

(Image: The Mesoamerican Reef near Chetumal, Humberto Bahena Basave, CONABIO)


Our team of British Academy-funded scientists, from Mexico, the UK, and Sweden, is one group attempting to arrest the reef’s decline in health before it is too late. Over the course of a 15-month project, we are in the process of diagnosing, and recommending treatment for a major cause of the symptoms the reef is currently displaying. Titled Land2Coast, our team’s research project is focused on the extent to which land-use on the adjacent Yucatan Peninsula might be to blame for the low water quality that is causing the reef to suffer1.

 When treating humans for ill health, our first step is to ask the patient what might be the reason for their reduced health. We are taking exactly the same approach with the Mesoamerican Reef. Obviously we can’t speak to the tiny organisms that make up the reef, but we can speak to those who know the history of the reef, just as a hospital patient would know their own medical history. The first stage in our investigations has been to organise workshops in which we have canvassed local environmental experts, like national park managers, over which land-use issues might be harming the region’s reef. Their local knowledge is key to the success of our research and in the workshops they identified 4 primary treatments for the Mesoamerican Reef’s maladies2

1. Reduce water contamination - According to the local experts, some who worked for not-for-profits dealing with water quality, only 30-35% of wastewater produced along Mexico’s Caribbean coast is treated before it enters the ocean. The population of the state of Quintana Roo (where the research project is based) has increased from under 100,000 in 1970 to over 1.5 million in 2017, as people have migrated there to work in the rapidly growing tourism industry. As land-use has changed to urban usage, cities like Cancun and Playa del Carmen have become considerable polluters. 

2. Improve environmental legislation and governance - Those working in national park management identified that they did not always have the finances and power to enforce land-use legislation designed to improve local water quality. Others were critical that existing legislation was also too “soft” on polluters, such as developers who have built hotels and residential projects without adequate water treatment systems. 

3. Halt deforestation - Environmental professionals highlighted how legal loopholes are being used to clear otherwise protected mangrove forests for tourism development. Coastal mangroves are an essential buffer between the land and ocean, often playing a role in filtering pollutants, so their removal can result in a greater volume of pollutants reaching the reef. 

4. Initiate better solid waste management - Beyond the largest cities, workshop attendees identified that there was little solid waste management in newly urbanized areas. The Yucatan Peninsula has a unique limestone geology, and sinkholes (or ‘cenotes’) lead to underground rivers that eventually flow out directly under the Mesoamerican Reef (as opposed to traditional rivers, which discharge at the coastline, relatively well removed from offshore coral reefs). Solid waste is apparently being dumped straight into the sinkholes, polluting the underground rivers and then the reef.

If these ‘treatments’ are not applied, the future existence of the Mesoamerican Reef, especially in Mexico, will be brought into question. Already under pressure from the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, it is unlikely the reef will be resilient to the waterborne illnesses caused by unsustainable changes to land-use. Our research team will be working further with the local experts who attended the workshop, to find ways in which their suggested treatments can be realised. You can follow our progress on this blog or on our project website.

 Further Reading

 1 Mesoamerican Reef - An Evaluation of Ecosystem Health

The latest 5-year report from environmental not-for-profit, Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, on the health of the world’s second longest barrier reef.

 2‘Land2Coast’ Workshop Reports, 30-31 March 2017

The first report published by the project featured in this blog post, which includes original maps of the impacts of land-use change on the marine environment around the Yucatan Peninsula.

8th June

Development, Security and the Oceans: Celebrating World Oceans Day, Cardiff University

 In celebration of World Oceans Day, the Sustainable Places Research Institute and the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University held a seminar with the aim of exploring linkages between some of the key challenges facing the ocean space.

The afternoon seminar brought together speakers with expertise in maritime affairs and socio-ecological policy from Cardiff University and beyond. Through a series of presentations and debate, the seminar explored some of the key challenges of achieving the aims of SDG 14 including maritime security, ecology and food security. Discussion focussed primarily around the link between social, ecological and economic development in island and coastal communities.

Inclusive forms of maritime governance

The first part of the seminar focused on Law Enforcement at Sea. Professor Tim Edmunds, University of Bristol and Co-Investigator of the Safe Seas project, highlighted the challenges of ocean governance and maritime security. He emphasised the need to develop more holistic forms of maritime governance and more inclusive forms of maritime governance. Capacity building and coalitions of interest were flagged as mechanisms supporting more inclusive forms of maritime governance.

Sea as a public space

The ontological challenge of governing ocean space was explored by Dr Barry Ryan of Keele University. Ryan suggested ocean space has ultimately become defined by those who police it and questioned how it could be governed more democratically. He suggested that more participatory forms of governance at the micro-hydro scale are necessary so that the sea can ultimately be viewed and used as a public space.

Fishery crimes are not just about fish

Peter Horn of The Pew Charitable Trusts gave some practical insight to the challenges of maritime governance, discussing the work of the foundation to address fishery crimes. He emphasized that fishery crimes are not just about fish, but often linked to other illegal activities – including human trafficking, corruption and evasion of penalties – which make it a particularly complex and urgent issue to address.

Security and coastal communities

The session provoked thinking around ways in which the governance of maritime space may be approached both ontologically and politically in a more sustainable fashion in order to meet Sustainable Development Goal 14. In the Q&A session, participants highlighted the complexity of land-sea jurisdictions and how surveillance technology at sea can be both enabling and constraining. Others questioned the need to aim for security and asked whether beginning from the point of insecurity is more helpful. Such a viewpoint considers the complex ways in which communities are affected by security measures, often in ways not necessarily enhancing livelihoods or well-being.

Maritime security discourse not just military defence

The second panel explored sustainable development issues and the ocean in the light of SDG14. Professor Susan Baker opened the second session with a discussion of issues faced by Small Island Developing States (SIDS) using marine resource dependency in the Seychelles as an illustrative example. She explored issues such as concerns over the security of food and nutrition, water, energy and the link to maritime crime. Baker identified challenges of building capacity for effective management of marine resources and highlighted that security discourse has evolved from military defence but also practices of social protection in welfare state regimes.


Hidden’ element of global fisheries production

Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth then took proceedings to a micro-level with a focus on securing a sustainable future for seagrass meadows, which constitutes a fundamental, yet ‘hidden’ element of global fisheries production. Cullen-Unsworth highlighted the role of seagrass meadows for concerns over food security and argued for better understanding of the interface between marine biodiversity conservation and socio-economic activities. Seagrass, as a habitat and ecosystem for fish, illustrates to some degree the cyclical and interconnected nature of maritime security and development.

Sustainable use of the ocean - the right kinds of food

Finally, Dr Jessica Paddock (Sustainable Consumption Institute, Manchester University) presented on marine resources for sustainable development within SDG14. This presentation explored ideas around conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and marine resources to promote access to affordable and appropriate food. She highlighted how food security is not simply an issue of ‘supply’, but supply of the right kinds of food for human wellbeing including affordable, culturally appropriate food. Paddock used the Turks and Caicos Islands as illustrative examples of the negative impacts of illegal activity in terms of food quality, access and appropriateness on SIDs.

Inter-linkages and trade-offs

The Q&A session participants discussed the costs and benefits of framing development challenges such as malnutrition in the language of security. The importance of education – in contrast to law enforcement responses – was discussed, but it was cautioned that soft tools approaches alone are not sufficient – institutions must also be involved in nurturing local buy in and building capacities. Participants agreed that the inter-linkages between security and development and in particular the trade-offs between pursuing several issue-specific agendas simultaneously require further attention.

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Maritime insecurity significantly threatens the sustainable development and human security of coastal countries in the western Indian Ocean region. Problems such as piracy, the smuggling of people, weapons, narcotics and illicit goods, illegal fishing and other environmental crimes have a significant impact on local economies, their potential for growth and the prospects of realizing in particular SDG14. The outbreak and escalation of Somali piracy from 2008 to 2012 has shown that maritime insecurities are interconnected and that the capacity of African states are insufficient to prevent crime at sea and to realize the developmental potential of the maritime economy. Protecting territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones, preventing maritime crimes, such as piracy and illegal fishing, and ensuring the sustainable exploitation of maritime resources requires significant law enforcement capacities, information sharing tools and working maritime governance structures.

SAFE SEAS is the first project to systematically study Maritime Security Sector Reform (MSSR) processes in a comparative manner. The objective is, firstly, to conduct a pilot study which introduces the problems of MSSR to the broader security governance debate, and, secondly, to use the developed evidence and core insights from the wider SSR debate to provide guidance to policy and planning. Through mapping MSSR processes in Djibouti, Kenya, the Seychelles, Somalia and regionally, and evaluating these in the light of accountability, effectiveness, ownership and transparency, the project will also develop key guidelines and a best practice toolkit for the planning, programming and implementation of maritime security capacity building and maritime security sector reform.

The project has already undertaken innovative work on understanding the security-sustainable development nexus at sea within the framework of SDG14. As research carried out within SAFE SEAS has shown, in maritime spaces like the western Indian Ocean, maritime criminality damages prospects for sustainable development of ocean resources, provides a justification for piracy within disadvantaged coastal communities and undermines trust in national institutions and international capacity building efforts. Therefore, it is crucial that both agendas are considered together. This will open the path to new synergies and contribute to safer and more sustainable management of the world’s ocean resources and the promotion of sustainable futures for island and coastal communities.


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