From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean
The vastness of the ocean came sharply into focus nearly 50 years ago, when the Apollo missions produced the first images of our overwhelmingly blue planet from space. More recently, a number of United Nations reports and peer-reviewed scientific studies have underlined the interconnectedness between the planetary climate and ocean systems, and the central role that the ocean is playing in protecting us from the impacts of climate change. Yet, despite this heightened awareness, the ocean remains chronically undervalued, poorly managed and inadequately governed.
This is particularly true of the high seas, the 64% of the total surface area of the ocean that is beyond the jurisdiction of any State. The high seas also provides a critical life-support function for areas within the national jurisdiction of coastal States (exclusive economic zones or EEZs) and what happens on the high seas can and does have a significant impact on the ecological health and productivity of EEZs.
When the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – the ‘constitution for the ocean’ – was negotiated, the high seas was protected by its inaccessibility. Today, there is virtually nowhere that industrial fishing vessels cannot reach, offshore oil and gas drilling is extending further and deeper every year, and deep sea mineral extraction is fast becoming a reality. The concept of the ‘freedom of the high seas’ guaranteed in the Convention once conjured up images of adventure and opportunity, but it is now driving a relentless ‘tragedy of the commons’, characterised by the depletion of fish stocks and other precious marine resources. The freedom is being exploited by those with the money and ability to do so, with little sense of responsibility or social justice.
People have lived near the ocean for millennia and maritime communities have always recognised the importance of the ocean and made it the centre of their economies and cultures. While it was living ocean resources that first drew people to the sea – and ocean fisheries and aquaculture today provide food for billions of people as well as livelihoods for millions – today we are increasingly aware of the less visible yet even more vital role the ocean plays in regulating the life-giving systems of our planet. It is the great biological pump at the heart of global atmospheric and thermal regulation and the driver of the water and nutrient cycles.
High seas ecosystems are estimated to be responsible for nearly half of the biological productivity of the entire ocean. The global ocean produces almost half of all the oxygen we breathe and absorbs more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere. More than 90% of the heat trapped in the Earth system by greenhouse gas emissions is stored in the ocean, providing a buffer against the full impacts of climate change on land; but this is having alarming consequences on ocean life and is perhaps the largest unseen environmental disaster of our time.
The ocean is, in essence, the kidney of our planet, keeping its systems healthy and productive. But the ability of the ocean to continue to provide these essential ecosystem services is being compromised as rising temperatures reduce its oxygen-carrying capacity. The increasing uptake of carbon dioxide is causing ocean acidification, and unprecedented changes in chemical and physical conditions are already impacting the distribution and abundance of marine organisms and ecosystems. The very life of the global ocean, from the smallest phytoplankton to the largest of the great whales, is being impacted.
The international community has expended a tremendous amount of political capital and diplomatic effort on establishing policy commitments aimed at reversing ocean degradation. Unfortunately, there remains a huge gap between the commitments expressed in various policy documents and the willingness or ability of States to implement them. For example, the Heads of State and Government at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) said that they would establish a representative network of marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2012, but by the time of the 2012 Rio+20 Summit it was evident that little progress had been made towards meeting this target, especially beyond coastal areas. Today, MPAs cover less than 1% of the high seas.
The conclusion we have come to is that the current governance system for the management of human activities impacting the high seas is no longer fit for purpose and cannot ensure longterm sustainability or equity in resource allocation, nor create the conditions for maximising economic benefits from the high seas. UNCLOS has proven itself particularly slow in responding to new challenges, not least when it comes to improving the management of growing threats and risks to biodiversity, ecosystems and fishery resources in the high seas, a need that has been widely recognised since at least 2002.
By understanding the drivers of decline individually and together, we have come to understand that what is needed is an integrated rescue package which can deliver ocean restoration when undertaken as a whole. We have considered equity, development and sustainability, and economic as well as intrinsic values. We have thought about the roles of consumers, intermediaries and markets, politicians, direct users and indirect beneficiaries.