Nathalie Rey, Greenpeace
Once seen as boundless, today there is a growing awareness that the world’s oceans are finite and the marine life they hold can indeed be exhausted. Roughly 90% of big fish have been fished out, coral reefs are disappearing, we are choking our oceans with pollution, and climate change is permanently altering their chemistry, with disastrous effects.
As technology has improved, ocean life has disappeared faster and faster, fishing fleets are moving further and further away from the coast in search of decreasing numbers of fish. International waters that cover almost two thirds of our planet – an area that used to be seen as too far, deep and difficult to exploit – are now in peril. Soon, our oceans will not be able to recover from humankind’s reckless destruction. We need to take action fast, and Rio offers a significant opportunity to take a huge step forward on ensuring high seas protection.
The journey from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to 2012 is littered with unfulfilled commitments to protect our oceans. With less than 1% of the high seas currently under any form of protection, the oceans are the least protected part of the planet.
So why is it taking so long to protect the oceans that are so necessary to our planet’s survival? There is a serious shortfall in the implementation of existing agreements. But, even if all relevant agreements are implemented, massive gaps and loopholes in existing governing activities in international waters would still hamper effective protection. These black holes in oceans governance include no explicit rules on what protection of international waters should look like, little coordination between relevant organisations, no means of establishing marine reserves or assessing the impact of human activities on high seas marine life, poor monitoring, surveillance, compliance and enforcement and no mechanisms to assess and regulate new and emerging human activities.
There are also no clear rules that ensure the benefits arising from the use of valuable marine genetic resources found in the global commons are shared fairly. Scientists, countries and corporations are beginning to research the genetic and chemical compounds found in deep sea creatures for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, and are patenting these resources for their own benefit. Given the huge financial, knowledge and other benefits arising from the use of these resources, it is essential that these are fairly and equitably shared amongst countries.
Protection of the oceans will have huge benefits – environmentally, socially and economically. A joint World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation study in 2008 exposed that a staggering $50 billion is lost annually as a result of overcapacity, subsidies and poor fisheries management. The study concluded that improved oceans governance is key to recapturing a large proportion of this annual loss. In addition, it has been estimated that setting aside 20-30% of our oceans as marine reserves could create a million jobs, enable fish catches worth US$ 70–80 billion per year and ecosystem services with a gross value of roughly US$ 4.5–6.7 trillion per year. The figures speak for themselves: a green economy will be impossible without a blue backbone.
The changes happening to the oceans will impact the poorest people on our planet the soonest and hardest, but ultimately we will all suffer the consequences. Business-as-usual is not an option: political urgency must be raised and Rio offers that opportunity to make a wholesale change in how we currently manage the high seas.
The world’s governments must give the green light at Rio to start negotiations on an agreement that implements the relevant marine conservation provisions under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (paragraph 80 of the Zero Draft). This implementing agreement under UNCLOS should ensure that ocean resources are sustainably used, benefits derived from their use are equitably shared, and that it enables governments to act on their long-standing commitments to create a global network of marine reserves. This agreement is supported by the majority of the world’s governments, however a small handful of governments are currently standing in the way of progress. We urge these government to stand aside and ensure that Rio becomes a critical milestone in safeguarding our oceans for now and future generations.