Once seen as boundless, today there is a growing awareness that the world’s oceans are finite and that the marine life they hold can indeed be exhausted. Roughly 90% of the big predatory fish in our oceans – species such as tuna, marlin and sharks – have been fished out since the 1950s and scientists warn that coral reefs are fast disappearing. Soon, our oceans will not be able to recover from humankind’s reckless destruction. The 3rd United Nations Global Biodiversity Outlook in 2010 warned that unless “radical and creative action” is taken quickly, our oceans will collapse.
Humankind has set sail on a wrong course. By disregarding the warning signs and not looking after the health of the oceans we are putting our future prosperity at great risk. However, there is hope. Scientific evidence garnered from all around the globe shows that the establishment of marine reserves – areas of ocean set aside to fishing, fossil fuel extraction and other destructive industrial activities – can protect and restore ocean ecosystems. Furthermore by creating networks of marine reserves and implementing sustainable management in the surrounding waters, not only can we conserve marine species and habitats but also ensure that we have fish to eat in the future. The challenge for the Rio Summit is to acknowledge the urgency of the oceans crisis and the major contribution that oceans health has to human wellbeing and to catalyse a process that will reverse the wholesale degradation.
Unfortunately, despite international commitments under the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity, progress is lamentably slow with less than 1% of international waters designated as protected areas, as compared with 12% on land.
So what is the problem?
Until the last century most of the world’s oceans were too far, too deep, too rough, too cold or too dangerous to fish. Most of the oceans were de facto marine reserves, off limits to fishing. However, technology has developed by leaps and bounds. Fishing vessels are now able to fish in the Arctic and Antarctic regions and to depths of several kilometres. Vessels fish for months on end, using satellites to locate their catch. Similarly the development of new technologies is enabling industry to mine and drill in deep waters. There are no longer any safe havens for the life contained in our oceans.
More than 64% of the oceans do not belong to any one country – these are the “high seas.” The “Freedom of the Seas” principle was first established hundreds of years ago when people still thought the oceans were limitless and inexhaustible and was later recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the constitution for the oceans. This means that the high seas are open to everyone, no matter if your country is on the other side of the planet or even landlocked. With rights come responsibilities and UNCLOS mentions obligations that countries have when operating in international waters, including the responsibility to protect ocean life from harm.
Unfortunately, much more emphasis has been put on the “right” to plunder the oceans than on the responsibility to protect them, creating a “wild-west” approach to oceans management. If you want to fish, drill or mine in international waters, there are organisations and processes that enable you to do so, but if you want to protect the high seas, for example, create a marine reserve to protect a fragile coral reef, there is simply no clear way to do it. It is very difficult or even impossible at the moment to create marine reserves, let alone monitor and control then, in most high seas areas. In short, the management of our oceans has developed in a piecemeal fashion, largely to serve different industry sectors. The result is a highly fragmentary system with huge governance gaps.
So what exactly are the governance gaps that need to be addressed?
Firstly, there are no explicit rules on what the protection of international waters should look like, leaving large areas of the world’s oceans without any management. For example, the high seas areas of Arctic Ocean lacks a governance framework that would ensure the protection it needs at a time when it is coming under increasing stress. While in the past this may not have seemed a problem, the melting of the permanent sea ice means that the Arctic Ocean is becoming accessible to both the oil industry and also to large industrial-scale fishing fleets.
The melting of the sea ice and changes in ocean currents due to climate change are causing changes in sea temperatures, leading to changes in fish population distribution. It’s predicted that the North East Atlantic cod, the last of the big global cod stocks, will move North and East due to changes in ocean temperatures. With the opening up of previously un-fished waters, the Barents whitefish fleet is already venturing further north than it ever has before. In June 2010, the Greenpeace ship Esperanza encountered ten Russian trawlers on the northern west coast of Svalbard, a in the northernmost part of Norway. Cod trawlers operating in these areas drag their heavy fishing gear across the seabed, destroying everything in their paths, including vulnerable cold water corals and sponge fields. The marine habitats in the far north are not well understood and are poorly mapped, so it is not known what impact destructive fishing will have on fragile Arctic Ocean ecosystems. Greenpeace conducted a series of seabed surveys in the region using specialised underwater camera equipment and discovered that the seabed was not the lifeless muddy bottom suggested by some, but rather home to sea urchins, sea stars, sea anemones, soft corals, sea squirts, tube worms, sponges, haddock, cod, red fish and shrimp.
Shell is one of several companies with plans to drill in the Arctic, despite the fact that the burning of the extracted oil will further exacerbate climate change and put increasing stresses on the already vulnerable Arctic ecosystem. Of major concern is the possibility of a major oil spill. The US Minerals Management Service has estimated a one in five chance of a major spill occurring over the lifetime of activity in just one block of leases in the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. The environmental consequences of a spill in the Arctic environment would be far more serious than in warmer waters, such as the Gulf of Mexico. Serious impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska are still being felt twenty years later.
Other high seas areas have some regional bodies that are mandated to manage specific fisheries or have other specific mandates but there is little coordination between these bodies. This for instance massively hinders the establishment of marine reserves. The situation in the West and Central Pacific Ocean highlights the problem. The Pacific Island countries are massively dependent on the oceans for their prosperity and in particular on tuna fishing. A number of Pacific Island Nations have taken the innovative move to close off the high seas areas between the islands, “the Pacific Commons”, to certain types of tuna fishing as a move to protect tuna and to close down the pirate fishing happening in these areas. The initiative is now increasingly backed by progressive businesses within the international tuna industry. This measure was adopted in 2008 by the regional fisheries management organisation that deals with tuna (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission – WCPFC) however, it was not renewed at the last meeting of the WCPFC in March 2012 highlighting some of the shortcomings of the tuna-focused treaty body in designating no-take areas. Furthermore, the WCPFC does not have the necessary mandate to protect the high seas areas from all fishing, or to restrict other human activities in order to protect marine life from the deep sea bottom all the way up to the ocean’s surface. Another fisheries management organisation – the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) – has just recently been negotiated, but is still not in force yet. Once fully operational it could, together with the WCPFC, close areas to all fishing. However, it would still not be able to close off vulnerable areas to all extractive human use as fully protected marine reserves.
There are other bodies with other relevant mandates, to the creation of marine reserves including the Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region (SPREP Convention) and the International Seabed Authority which is responsible for managing seabed mining.
Taken together this highly complex system of independent organisations is highly fragmented and countries are unable to do what they need to ensure the protection of the oceans on which they depend. Until there is an overarching framework in which these organisations are embedded and which provides adequate means to harmonise the regulations and coordinate the various relevant organisations, it will be impossible to effectively conserve the marine life and ecosystems of the region.
Poor monitoring, surveillance, compliance and enforcement of extractive or potentially polluting activities constitute another major problem with the way we manage our oceans. In areas where there are management organisations in place but which lack sufficient control and compliance mechanisms, the marine environment will suffer. A major problem on the high seas is pirate fishing, i.e. fishing which is illegal, unreported or unregulated. For instance, recent reports from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) suggest that 18% of all catch taken from the Indian Ocean is illegal, due to inadequate enforcement of existing regulations and the absence of proper surveillance of fishing vessels in the region.
As stated earlier, technological changes are enabling new industries to venture into the high seas. Given the potential harm that these new and emerging industries may cause to the marine environment it is important that there is a means of regulating their activities and assessing the potential harm they might do before they commence their activities. As on land, the best means of doing this is by undertaking Environmental Impact Assessments, but as yet there is not instrument that mandates these to be undertaken in international waters.
Technological advances are opening the world’s oceans to the possibility of seabed mining. In September 2011 the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and China signed a 15-year contract for prospecting and exploration for valuable mineral deposits located in the Southwest Indian Ridge of the Indian Ocean and all the indications are that commercial mining operations will soon start in the Pacific. Just as with mining on land, such activities could have serious environmental impacts. These new industries and their potential impacts cannot be considered in isolation, for instance how these activities might affect commercial fish populations must be taken into account. For this reason not only should there be a mechanism for undertaking Environmental Impact Assessments but there should also be a means for undertaking Strategic Environmental Assessments.
The search for marine genetic resources found in the organisms living in the deep sea is another activity that is unregulated and could lead to the destruction of rare marine species and habitats. Scientists, countries and corporations are beginning to research the genetic and chemical compounds that are found in deep sea creatures for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries and then patenting these resources. There is no legal regime to ensure that the exploration for and removal of these resources for scientific research or commercial purposes (bioprospecting) happens safely. Given the huge financial, knowledge and other benefits arising from the use of these resources, it is crucial that these are fairly and equitably shared amongst countries.
Taking into account all of the above it is easy to understand why addressing the protection of the high seas as a whole requires a global approach; this is why Greenpeace is calling for an Oceans Rescue Plan.
This new Oceans Rescue Plan would take the form of an agreement under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and it would make clear the obligation of countries to protect ocean life in international waters. It would put in place a mechanism to identify, create and manage marine reserves. It would spell out the process that industry needs to follow to create and implement environmental impact assessments before extractive and potentially damaging activities are allowed to take place. It would organise the coordination of existing regional organisations that regulate human activities (fishing, drilling, mining, shipping, among others) and protect our oceans. It would also create a fair regime for the access and sharing of benefits from the exploitation of genetic resources in the oceans- so that developing countries can also benefit from the ocean resources of the high seas. A good Oceans Rescue Plan must also include a monitoring and control and enforcement mechanism that will ensure agreed rules are respected by all.
This Oceans Rescue Plan would empower governments to finally act on their long-standing commitments to defend our oceans and create a global network of marine reserves, essential to saving life on earth for now and future generations.
The Rio summit provides the perfect platform to elevate the issue of oceans protection and to agree the start of a process of formal negotiations to address the issue of the protection of high seas biodiversity with the aim of producing an effective Oceans Rescue Plan. We cannot neglect the health of our oceans – they sustain us all and are essential in the fight against poverty and ensuring long term food security. A green economy needs a blue backbone. The launch of negotiations for a visionary Oceans Rescue Plan is the oceans test case on the success of the Rio Summit.
Richard Page is Oceans Campaigner, Greenpeace International