New Commission for oceans in crisis

Our oceans give us food and oxygen, regulate climate and offer untold riches, yet are in deep trouble. So what should a new Global Ocean Commission do about it?

14 February 2013
Fishing boats return to a beach on the Bay of Bengal.

Fishing boats return to a beach on Bay of Bengal. The high sea might be beyond this boat's reach, but the oceans' future affects us all. Photo: Espen Rasmussen/PANOS

Launched this week at the Commonwealth Club in London, the Global Ocean Commission is co-chaired by José María Figueres (a former President of Costa Rica), Trevor Manuel (former Minister of Finance, now Minister of Planning for South Africa), and David Miliband (a former UK foreign secretary). It aims to tackle issues threatening the high seas — the global oceans that lie beyond individual countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

That’s a crucial task. The oceans produce roughly half the oxygen we breathe, recycle nutrients and regulate our climate — services we too often fail to value. They cover more than two thirds of the planet’s surface, contain a staggering 97% of the planet's water (by far the biggest living space on Earth), and offer a wealth of resources. Yet they are increasingly exploited, and largely unregulated.

Poor protection

There is no modern effective international or even regional governance mechanism to monitor or enforce regulations on the high seas. That’s partly because of the ‘freedom of the seas’ doctrine — a principle put forth in the 17th century that restricted any individual country’s influence to a relatively narrow band around its own coast, leaving the high seas ‘for all’. But technological advances and soaring exploitation mean that this lawlessness now poses threats to the rich biodiversity and habitats of the open oceans.

We do have the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)[PDF] — an international agreement that came into force in 1994. It defines nations’ rights and responsibilities when using the world's oceans, and establishes guidelines for businesses, the environment, and for managing marine natural resources. But many exploitation technologies and environmental issues, including deep sea fishing and the climate change implications of ocean acidification, have emerged since then, leaving a yawning ‘governance gap’.  

Failing fisheries

The world’s fishery resources have certainly been depleted at an alarming rate, due to over fishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and destructive fishing practices. In 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization said that over half the world’s fish stocks were already fully exploited (relative to their maximum sustainable yield). Nearly a fifth (19%) were over exploited, and 8% fell into the ‘depleted’ category. As the Commission now points out, “some may never recover”.

That’s particularly serious because more than 43 million people’s livelihoods involve fisheries, and many of those are in developing countries.

A focus on four issues

The new Commission is a collaboration between the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group, Somerville College (part the University of Oxford, UK), the Dutch environmental awareness group Adessium Foundation, and Oceans 5 (a group of philanthropists who are concerned about protecting the oceans). It wants to propose new policy recommendations on four key issues facing the high seas:

  • overfishing;
  • large-scale habitat and biodiversity loss;
  • poor management and enforcement; and
  • inadequate governance.  

And related to those headline topics it has climate change, seabed mining and other emerging issues (like geo-engineering) in its sights.

Will it work?

But there are already more than 30 international frameworks and agreements on sustainable fisheries management alone, set up by organisations and individuals that share the same frustration as the Global Ocean Commission. Their achievements have been extremely limited. So what shall we expect from the Global Ocean Commission?

Perhaps both the easiest and most significant achievement would be to bring the issue of ocean governance in general, and the high seas in particular, to the forefront of the global environmental debate, so helping maintain the political will to deal with it. David Miliband has told the UK’s Observer newspaper that the current situation is the “ecological equivalent of the financial crisis”. The oceans belong to us all, and we all depend on them. At the launch meeting, Miliband pointed out that even more than the banks, the high seas are “too big to fail”. 

Read Essam's paper on establishing payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes as a strategy for protecting coastal and marine ecosystem services.