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The High Seas Need Global Governance

Trevor Manuel, David Miliband and José María Figueres,
Co-Chairs,
Global Ocean Commission


Globally, marine and coastal resources are worth $3 trillion a year—around 5 percent of the world’s GDP—and 350 million jobs are linked to the ocean. Providing us with food, fresh water, energy, medicine, transport and oxygen, a healthy ocean is essential for all life on Earth.

Yet beyond national waters, on the high seas, the rule of law is almost entirely absent. Fragmented governance means the high seas resemble a failed state for which no one is taking overall responsibility, allowing a minority to abuse its freedoms, plunder its riches, take more than a fair share, and benefit at the expense of the rest, especially the poorest.

For too long we’ve taken out too many fish, polluted indiscriminately, and damaged vulnerable habitats on the seabed. Pushing our ocean system to the point of collapse, we are risking our own health and prosperity. It is vital we both value and actively manage the services provided by the high seas, some of which are invisible—like the storage of 500 million tonnes of carbon every year, which our studies estimate is worth up to $222 billion annually—as much as the visible ones, like the 10 million tonnes of fish caught each year.

This September, the United Nations (UN) will begin discussing the future of the high seas and how they should be governed. Governments around the world need to make the most of this rare opportunity. A new international agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is needed to secure ocean health and the sustainable and equitable use of high seas resources.

UNCLOS, which was adopted in 1982 and came into force in 1996, is no longer fit for purpose. When it was negotiated, the high seas were protected because they were inaccessible. Technological advances have enabled the exploitation of resources to extend farther and deeper than ever before. UNCLOS has not kept pace with these developments, and no framework is in place for emerging industries, such as high seas energy production.

Plastic pollution—including pellets and microplastics that enter food chains and endanger human health—is a growing problem. Marine debris and sea junk cause the death of some 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year, not to mention posing a hazard to shipping.

Rising temperatures are reducing the ocean’s oxygen-carrying capacity while the increasing uptake of carbon dioxide is causing ocean acidification. While 97 percent of fishers live in developing countries, a handful of countries—including the United States, Japan and China, as well as the EU—are artificially subsidizing industrial high seas fishing, without which support such fisheries would not be financially viable.

Beyond a new agreement for high seas protection under UNCLOS, the Global Ocean Commission is proposing an end to plastic pollution, an international liability convention for offshore oil and gas exploration and production, an immediate cap on high seas fisheries subsidies and their elimination within five years, mandatory identification numbers and tracking of all high-seas fishing vessels, a total ban on transhipment of fish at sea to help eliminate illegal fishing, and an independent Global Ocean Accountability Board to monitor progress on all of these fronts.

If in five years adequate measures are not in place, the international community should consider turning the high seas into a regeneration zone where industrial fishing is forbidden—with the exception of those areas where Regional Fisheries Management Organizations are effective.

We know what needs to be done to restore ocean health, but this requires global participation. Delivering change will take political will and international collaboration by governments, businesses and society.

To participate in Mission Ocean and learn more about the Global Ocean Commission’s five-year rescue package for the ocean, visit http://missionocean.me.

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