Ocean literacy – a Maltese context

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 January, 2023 at 12:32 pm by Andre Camilleri

Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon is chairman of Malta Maritime Forum

We are presently living in the Ocean Decade (2021-2030) as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in an effort to give more importance to the relationship between man and ocean.

In fact, Ocean Literacy relates to people’s awareness about the impact of the sea on their well-being and, in turn, of the effect of their behaviour on the Ocean.  It is therefore a useful means by which to enhance people’s appreciation of the sea and all the vital resources it provides to our daily lives including oxygen; water; salt and other minerals; and fish and other forms of food. Besides, the oceans are a worthy source of energy and act to absorb 90% of the planet’s temperature.

Among the intangible benefits, one cannot overlook the fact that the sea has always been and shall continue to remain a great source of inspiration and recreation to many in particular designers, artists, poets and sportsmen.

But the sea also provides a livelihood for millions of people not least because it is a principal “motorway” for the transport of people and goods.  As a matter of fact, over 80% of world trade in tonnage terms is transported over water and yet, rarely do people appreciate that it is through the initiative of maritime entrepreneurs, the hard work and sacrifices of sea-faring personnel and the support of land-based colleagues that we are assured of our basic necessities and medicines through thick and thin even during the most challenging situations including the global pandemic which we experienced for the best part of two years.

But besides the active initiatives taken at the UN and EU level, Ocean Literacy deserves special importance closer to home. For several reasons, in fact, “Mediterranean literacy”, takes on a very important dimension for us “Mediterraneans”. Due to its special “enclosed” characteristics, our Mediterranean Sea is robust and plentiful, but equally fragile and at risk, therefore deserving of our extra awareness and care. It borders across three continents, has over 45,000km of coast and encompasses some 500 million inhabitants. Although it comprises a mere 1% of the oceans’ total surface area, it is home to around one in every 10 of all ocean species.

The economies along the littoral states and islands dotting the Mediterranean are hugely dependent on the sea. To varying degrees their prosperity is much dependent on activities falling under the Blue Economy not least coastal tourism, fishing desalination and sea transport including cargo-handling and transshipment.

Environmentally, the Mediterranean is the third most polluted sea on our planet, contaminated with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste every year and with 90% of its stocks being overfished.

Socially and culturally, there can be little doubt that the Mediterranean – often referred to as the cradle of civilization – has shaped the history, traditions and cultures of all its littoral states, not least ours in Malta.

Geopolitically, due to the vast differences in culture, language, political stability and economic development, the region is prone to regional conflicts. These challenging conditions invariably hamper regional collaboration and a consolidated approach towards many worthy aims including Ocean Literacy itself.

Unfortunately and ironically therefore, Ocean Literacy assumes a poor standing on the Mediterranean agenda. As a result the region as a whole is a weak performer in efforts related to Ocean Literacy also due to an absence of ocean teachings in formal education and a shortage of ocean educators.

If given its deserved importance, Ocean Literacy could itself serve as a medium towards better understanding between its littoral states and their citizens. Through Ocean Literacy, the sea could act yet again as “the great unifier” where all parties could come to a better understanding of their common challenges, their common responsibilities and the common destiny they share.

Ocean Literacy is tied to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals specifically SDG14 which is aimed at “conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources”. Like the rest of the world, it pays us Mediterraneans and we Maltese to commit ourselves towards achieving this goal. In order to do so, however, we must take all active steps necessary to appreciate and get to know our ocean better thereby fostering an ocean-literate community.

Our lives and our well-being depend on the health of our Oceans so it is our common duty to protect our ocean. We must therefore foster Ocean Literacy at home and promote it regionally and at the global level to safeguard a healthy and sustainable future.

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