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Ocean under threat - call for action.

The Global Ocean Commission’s ambitious aim is to reverse the decline in the ocean and restore it for sustainable productivity.


“The ocean crisis could make the financial crisis look like a peanut, and the time to act is now before the crisis becomes acute.” With these words Global Ocean Commissioner and former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin fired a warning shot across the bows of international complacency on governing the marine environment. 

 Speaking on BBC radio’s ‘Shared Planet’ programme, he called for a “global uprising” against the destruction of the common resources of the ocean. “We’ve just come through a massive banking crisis in the UK, the eurozone and in the US,” he said. “That banking crisis occurred because banks, institutions and countries were prepared to put their own interests ahead of the global interest and in fact what they did was to trigger a global recession.

“We’ve now put in place an institution called the Financial Stability Board which took 20 years of discussions of the kind that the Global Ocean Commission (GOC) has really now begun … it took a crisis to do it.”

And all the evidence shows that the world cannot wait 20 years – or for a crisis to happen – to prevent the damage to the oceans from becoming irreversible.

The radio programme also featured interviews with marine scientist Callum Roberts of York University in the UK and renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle. They spoke about their first-hand experiences of seeing ocean species and habitats destroyed by human activities, including overfishing and pollution.

Earle described how a whale, washed ashore on the California coast, was found to have “400lbs of plastic in its stomach”. Roberts made the striking observation that, while 12 men had walked on the moon, only three people had seen the deepest parts of the ocean.

Underlining the importance of the sea to the planet’s survival, he said: “If you think of the earth as a clock, then the ocean is the mainspring that keeps it ticking over.”

Blueprint for reform

It is to keep that mainspring working that the GOC was formed. Paul Martin is one of 17 high-level leaders drawn from around the world to develop a blueprint for reforming governance and management of the high seas. They are aiming to produce a set of recommendations by the middle of this year for restoring the ocean to full health and sustainable productivity.

The high seas account for two-thirds of the Earth’s 361 million square kilometres of ocean – the remaining third is controlled and managed by individual governments and extends up to 200 nautical miles from the shore – yet, according to the GOC’s ‘Oceans Under Threat’ report: “there is little monitoring and little policing for this vast area of the planet. Most fundamentally, the high seas sit under a legal system that has not evolved in response to modern practices, technologies or scientific understanding.”

Currently the ocean provides food for more than three billion people and the oxygen it produces accounts for every second breath we take. But with the population set to grow from seven to nine billion in the next few decades, and as scientists unlock more of its secrets, the ocean’s resources will be in demand like never before.

The sea will become a major source of minerals and genetic materials. Other uses include electricity generation and geo-engineering to increase absorption of carbon dioxide.

Destructive fishing

But the rich biodiversity that is only just being discovered is in danger from destructive fishing methods, pollution and climate change. The GOC report warns: “Illegal fishing vessels are an increasing threat to the security of nations and a commonplace scene of human rights abuses. Combating illegal fishing would improve prospects for nature, for the ecosystem services that we need, and for responsible businesses. It could also ensure that the benefits from the exploitation of ocean resources can be sustainably managed and equitably shared.”

The combined impact of destructive fishing, pollution, climate change and other factors were recently analysed by leading marine scientists with the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Among the main findings were: that overfishing is depleting economically important species and altering marine food webs; climate change and ocean acidification are seriously damaging coral reefs and other ecosystems; and climate change and pollution are increasing the number of ‘dead zones’. It was also clear that these threats are greater in combination than they are individually.

The IPSO/IUCN report suggests a raft of measures, including banning bottom trawling and other destructive fishing practices and ending illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It also advocates community-run fisheries, setting international climate targets and reforming governance of the high seas.

This report and its findings are being considered by the GOC as it develops its own recommendations. To this end the commissioners have been closely examining the legal framework and management rules governing the high seas.

Although there are separate organisations for managing industries such as fishing, shipping and seabed mining, no one has overall responsibility for protecting nature and there is no clear legal mechanism for establishing protected areas. This is in sharp contrast to the efforts made to protect the land environment.

In July last year the GOC recommended that, in the interests of national security, safety at sea and effective fisheries regulation, all high seas vessels should be required to carry International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers and tracking equipment.

Public support

The GOC’s efforts to chart a way forward for protecting the high seas have found favour with the public. Seventy-four per cent of respondents to the GOC’s opinion survey wanted to see one organisation responsible for protecting nature in international waters and 85 per cent believed that the high seas should be managed sustainably.

In his ‘Shared Planet’ radio interview, Paul Martin stressed the role of the public in driving change. He said: “Increasingly, the pressure put on the large food chains that buy these fish – to demonstrate that, in fact, the fish were legally caught under circumstances that are not going to eviscerate the species – has become crucial. Consumers have shown on a multitude of occasions that they are prepared to act if they think people are acting badly.”

The public outcry about fishing practices that harmed dolphins is evidence of the power of belief-based consumption, demonstrating that ordinary people can and do make a difference.

Ultimately, a healthier ocean that is properly managed could provide more food and more jobs, to the benefit of everyone.

As Sylvia Earle told the BBC: “We can’t take the ocean for granted.”

The Global Ocean Commission

The Commission began as an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with Oxford University, Adessium Foundation and Oceans 5.

It is an independent body co-chaired by Trevor Manuel, Minister in the South African Presidency, José Maria Figueres, former President of Costa Rica and David Milliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former UK Foreign Secretary. They are joined by leading political figures from every continent, as well as world-renowned business leaders.

The Commission will make a series of recommendations by the middle of 2014 that will be capable, if fully implemented, of restoring the ocean to ecological health and sustainable productivity.

There are 10 policy areas:

• A sustainable development goal for the global ocean

• Climate change, ocean acidification and geo-engineering

• Elimination of marine pollution affecting the high seas

• Bioprospecting and marine genetic resources

• Deep seabed mining

• Eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies

• MPAs: protecting high seas biodiversity

• Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing

• Reform of high seas fisheries management

• Modernising ocean governance

Call for action

Papers covering all these areas are available on the GOC website and the Commission is inviting comments from all sections of society via an online survey. For more details about the GOC and its invitation for engagement visit www.globaloceancommission.org

Article for Insight magazine 1/2014 by Julie Mitchell, a senior writer specialising in the engineering sector.


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