High Seas at Risk: Why the World Must Act

  • by Obiageli "Oby" Ezekwesili
  • July 05, 2016
  • Essay

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Big problems rarely have simple solutions. And so it is with our ocean. An expanse that once seemed almost boundless is now littered with plastics and other debris. The fish that we once thought were countless are diminishing at astonishing rates. The coral reefs that we assumed were an indelible feature of the ocean are dying, driven to the brink by warmer, more acidic waters.

These and other threats are closing in at a time when we are increasing our demands on the ocean, expecting it to feed billions of people and support the livelihoods of millions. The challenges of ocean stewardship are immense: Although coastal countries worldwide claim sovereignty over waters that extend roughly 200 miles from their shores, those borders are meaningless to marine life, other natural resources, and the tides and currents.

So it is up to all of us to assume ownership of the majestic, imperiled lifeblood of our planet and to work toward its recovery and sustained good health.

This challenge is particularly vexing on the high seas—the waters beyond the jurisdiction of any country.

Throughout history, the task of ensuring lawful behavior on the high seas has fallen to governments, through each country’s oversight of the vessels that are flying its flag. Due to a combination of factors, starting with the fact that no government has a permanent physical presence on or near the high seas, that system is fraught with opportunity for shady activity, from illegal fishing and dumping of waste to horrific crimes, including human trafficking, slavery, and murder.

It is time for collective action.

Data Points

  • 72% of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans

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  • 2/3 of the world’s oceans make up the high seas

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  • $23.5 billion worth of seafood a year comes from illegal fishing

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The high seas make up about two-thirds of the world’s oceans, which in turn cover 72 percent of the Earth’s surface. While many experts once believed that the high seas held little of interest to plant and animal scientists, recent research has revealed that these waters harbor a fascinating array of creatures, seamounts, and deep-sea reefs, some of which are fragile and take thousands of years to grow. Further, many species, including whales, sharks, and bluefin tuna, migrate across the high seas.

Throughout most of history, people assumed the high seas were so distant and vast as to be immune to human influence. But today, those waters are highly stressed from pollution, climate change, overfishing, and illegal fishing, among other human-wrought ills.

But we can address these problems by improving how our fisheries are administered, promoting ecosystem-based management of the seas, encouraging heads of government to create special envoys for the ocean, and developing new agreements between nations and controls on fishing vessels to ensure that fishing on the high seas is conducted legally. I also welcome initiatives such as the 2015-25 Decade of African Seas and Oceans, which seeks to regenerate our oceans for the benefit of all.

The coastal nations of Africa know firsthand the need to protect our seas. They feel the impact of a changing ocean perhaps more than most. But they also face constraints—the lack of technical, human, and institutional resources—in their efforts to combat illegal fishing and develop sustainable conservation practices. They need the tangible help of other countries, which also will benefit from strengthening what is now, unfortunately, a weak link in our global campaign to preserve the high seas.

One specific way to help is to lead by example. For instance, many European fishing vessels now ply waters off Africa’s coast, reaping great catches under local laws or regulations. But if they were actually following the stricter laws that govern their home nations, they would be taking fewer fish. It would benefit us all for these fishing vessels’ crews to follow the principles that guide their own countrymen.

Also essential to these efforts is the United Nations. Its stature and influence make it an essential player in any effort to protect the high seas. The UN has established a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) focused solely on the ocean. SDGs were envisioned to build on a set of broad objectives, called Millennium Development Goals, that were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000 to solve big problems, including poverty, income inequality, climate change, and dismal sanitation in parts of the world.

Among the 17 goals the UN General Assembly adopted in 2015 was SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources.

This was further broken down into seven specific objectives, including significantly reducing marine pollution, sustainably managing and protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, addressing the impacts of ocean acidification, ending illegal fishing by 2020, and protecting at least 10 percent of the oceans by 2020.

As good as all of that sounds, SDG 14 would be an empty commitment unless it were backed up by concrete assignments stating who is to carry out each piece of the goal.

There are too many fishing vessels chasing an ever-diminishing supply of fish.

The Global Ocean Commission, on which I served, worked closely with a large group of UN ambassadors and representatives to launch a series of conferences to track progress toward meeting SDG 14 targets. This has already yielded a UN resolution to hold the first high-level UN Conference on Oceans and Seas, scheduled for June 5-9, 2017, in Fiji. That session will be followed by others.

These conferences should motivate governments and civil society to act on ocean issues and to hold people accountable for commitments they make.

While the United Nations can be effective, it can also be cumbersome. For a decade, UN discussions on high seas biodiversity had been bogged down, assigned to an ad hoc, open-ended working group of the General Assembly. To break that logjam, the ocean commission circulated an online petition, called Mission Ocean, making the case for new high seas protections.

In just three months, the petition drew an extraordinary response—283,000 signatures from people in 111 countries. We presented the petition and list of signatories to the UN in September 2014 to show that high seas governance can excite support well beyond the typical marine conservation community.

Next, we worked with Prince Albert II of Monaco to convene a roundtable of representatives from 20 governments engaged in ocean-related negotiations at the UN. These countries, dubbed the Monaco Group, now coordinate their strategies in UN negotiations on high seas governance, boosting the likelihood of achieving progress in that area.

And in April 2014, a select group of commission representatives met with Pope Francis and other senior leaders of the Catholic Church, and conveyed to them our vision for ocean governance. In his encyclical on the environment, released in June 2015, the pope made specific reference to the gaps in regulation and enforcement that are undermining ocean governance. That suggests we had indeed influenced the pontiff’s thinking on the topic.

As I grew more familiar with industrial-scale fishing, I learned that, right now, there are too many fishing vessels chasing an ever-diminishing supply of fish. Many of these boats are supersized, floating factories, able to stay at sea for months at a time, relentlessly hunting fish in every ocean in the world.

Many also belong to fleets that receive subsidies from their governments—money that comes as direct payments, tax credits, fuel discounts, or a host of other benefits. Without that help, a lot of boats would not turn a profit and their owners likely would opt to keep them in dock. In essence, the subsidies are encouraging crews to fish when all other indicators suggest they should not.

These subsidies worldwide add up to $30 billion per year, and 60 percent of that total directly encourages unsustainable, destructive, and even illegal fishing.

To address this, the ocean commission asked the World Trade Organization to demand that its members fully disclose all fisheries subsidies, classify subsidies so that it is clear which ones are harmful, and immediately cap, and then phase out within 5 years, high seas fishing fuel subsidies.

Aside from encouraging unsustainable fishing, subsidies contribute to socioeconomic injustice because the money is awarded primarily by a handful of rich governments. That gives those countries’ fleets a competitive advantage over those from poorer nations.

The WTO has not yet moved firmly to address the subsidies issue, but I see progress in this area. There is a palpable sense of enthusiasm among WTO members to end harmful subsidies, and 28 trade ministers recently committed to act to control subsidies and provide greater transparency around them.

Still another significant problem plaguing our oceans is illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

IUU fishing accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood a year, or up to 1 in 5 wild-caught fish taken from our ocean.

These crimes, which range from fishing without proper licensing to raiding marine protected areas, rob legitimate fishers and governments of revenue, undermine scientific assessments of fisheries, and threaten coastal residents who rely on fish for their food and livelihoods.

The IUU fishing problem is complex, with challenges ranging from positively identifying and tracking vessels to deciding where, when, and how to start enforcement against suspects.

Unlike other classes of vessels, fishing boats are not uniformly required to have unique identification numbers, so even when authorities know a vessel has been involved in illegal fishing it can be hard to pin the crime on that boat’s captain and crew in a court of law.

The oceans do not respect borders, and what happens in one area will invariably affect neighboring ecosystems.

Detection and pursuit of suspects on the water is expensive, often dangerous, and rarely results in legal action that might deter future IUU fishing. The list of challenges grows from there. But there are specific actions we can take to meet and defeat this problem.

These include requiring unique numbering for every vessel through the International Maritime Organization, banning at-sea transfers of fish, urging more sharing of information among countries about fishing activities and the catch that reaches their ports, and encouraging the marketplace to demand fish that is caught using methods to ensure sustainability of stocks.

But perhaps the biggest impact will come from widespread ratification and implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement. To reach market, almost all ocean-caught fish must come through a port. Thus establishing a global, cohesive line of defense to detect and stop IUU fish at the docks would drastically lower the profit potential for illegal fishers.

Fortunately, we’ve seen significant progress toward that goal. The Port State Measures Agreement has just taken effect, with 30 parties ratifying it. IUU fishing has drawn high-level attention from numerous heads of state and was one of three focus areas at the Our Ocean conferences, hosted by the U.S. in 2014 and by Chile in 2015.

At the October 2015 conference, Chile’s minister of foreign affairs, Heraldo Muñoz, announced the launch of an initiative called Friends of PSMA, which aims to use the experience of nations that have already ratified the treaty to support and assist others in joining it. The initiative is now supported by the director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Many of the issues I’m highlighting aren’t apparent to the casual observer, but one is: marine pollution, and particularly the proliferation of plastic littering our seas and beaches. Go to almost any coast or patch of ocean in the world, and you are likely to see the evidence—plastic bags dotting the horizon like jellyfish, medical waste washed up on the sand, and milk jugs, water bottles, lost sunglasses, and so much more circulating in giant garbage gyres.

These discards take decades or longer to break down—and when they do, the news gets even worse: Plastics decompose into small pieces that resemble fish eggs, which are consumed by a variety of marine species, including animals we end up eating.

In June 2015, the G-7 leaders agreed to an action plan to combat marine litter, especially plastics. The principles of that plan are intentionally broad—from improving countries’ waste management to supporting the removal of litter that threatens sensitive areas—but I am hopeful they will drive more action at the national, regional, and local levels.

If the degradation of the high seas continues—which is a possibility, despite all efforts to reverse the declines—the entire ocean will suffer. As I noted, the oceans do not respect borders, and what happens in one area will invariably affect neighboring ecosystems. If, for example, the high seas reach capacity on how much carbon they can absorb or become so polluted that migrating or breeding animals die from toxicity, we will see related problems emerge in other waters.

That’s one reason the commission recommended that if conditions on the high seas keep deteriorating over the next five years, the global community should consider banning industrial fishing on the high seas, except in areas where fisheries management organizations are proving to be effective stewards.

Like in a marine reserve, such a ban would give high seas ecosystems a breather, allowing many animals to rebuild their numbers, and other features, such as deep-water reefs, to regenerate. The ban could be lifted only when new governance tactics prove effective.

The growing attention to the plight of our oceans has resulted in our recognizing some specific actions we must take. The fate of our oceans rests with all who can influence human behavior, not only on the seas but in seafood markets, ocean-bound rivers, corporate boardrooms, and political chambers.

It is now up to all of us to work toward a healthy, sustainable ocean that is a stable home for its inhabitants and a continued source of food, jobs, and safe recreation for humanity.

-Obiageli "Oby" Ezekwesili served as a member of the Global Ocean Commission and is a former vice president of the World Bank for Africa, a former Nigerian education minister, and co-founder of Transparency International.