Bermuda is the global capital of the world’s reinsurance industry so the Ocean Risk conference which ran over two days this week saw the crisis in the oceans mostly from that singular perspective. Some said the conference would never happen, after a general election last summer in which the Progressive Labour Party was elected and promptly relegated the Environment and Natural Resources department to a branch of the ministry of Home Affairs, but this first-ever conference of its kind, the brainchild of Cole Simons, a minister in the previous adminstration, duly went ahead organised by XLCatlin and Oceans Unite and with the blessing and support of Walton Brown, the Home Affairs minister, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Simons yesterday on the lawn of the Fairmont Southampton: Bermuda at its best.
A succession of impressive speakers, including Peter Thomson, the UN ambassador for the oceans, Queen Noor of Jordan, Prince Albert of Monaco, and Dominic LeBlanc, Fisheries Minister of Canada, warned of what Thomson called the “quickening cycle of decline” brought upon the ocean. Thomson called for an end to fishing subsidies, the consumption of illegally caught fish and the fulfilment of the UN goal of ten per cent of the oceans to be placed in protected areas. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a scientist from Australia and 2018 Ocean Award winner, delivered the shocking news that warming seas had killed 50 per cent of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef.
It was the subject of the intensifying power of hurricanes that proved the most emotive subject and the most relevant to the insurance industry grandees present. Dr Kendrick Pickering, deputy premier of the British Virgin Islands, described how his own house had been demolished around him by Hurricane Irma and how his constituents could not understand how the – mostly American – companies who insured their houses took up to nine months to pay out. “There wasn’t enough thought put into helping people whose lives were turned around,” he said.
There were other things that insurance companies could do, as well as speeding up payouts in such circumstances, that the conference identified. Illegal fishing boats seem to have no difficulty obtaining insurance, though many of the activities they get involved in are inherently riskier than legal traffic. They often have indentured labour on them too. Insurance companies continue to pick up the tab for beach developments which remove mangroves and damage coral reefs, both of which have been shown to increase damage if a hurricane hits. For this huge industry there was plenty of food for thought.
The legacy of the conference though, I suspect, will be far greater. It showed a new government in Bermuda getting to grips with ocean issues on which Bermuda has been a leader in the past. The Minister, Walton Brown, as one of his first steps has commissioned a study of how to improve fish stock assessments around Bermuda’s platform of reefs, which shows sense and Bermuda’s fishermen say is long overdue. He expressed interest in solutions to the persistent threat from illegal fishing and from plastic waste which accumulates in the Sargasso Sea. On the subject of marine reserves, of which Bermuda has many de facto but undeclared examples around its wrecks and protected shorelines, he was still looking into it. If this excellent conference was anything to go by, and this government’s first actions in office when it comes to the ocean, the response to that question will be thoughtful and open-minded when it comes.