March 25, 2019

Action For An Ocean For All

News Source: International Institute for Environment and Development

Author(s): Maggie Watson

Ours is a blue planet – 70% of the Earth’s surface is ocean. And about 60% of that lies outside national jurisdictions on the ‘high seas’.

But those seas no longer lie out of reach. Countries that can afford advanced fleets are already exploiting remote and deep waters for fish or other living resources. Some see deep water mining as a valuable source of minerals, such as the cobalt needed for electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, our global plastic habit means the remotest ocean areas are collecting swirling gyres of trash. And the old adage ‘there’s plenty more fish in the sea’ doesn’t hold water. The FAO reports that by 2015 only 7% of the world’s known fish stocks were ‘underfished’.

The stakes are high. Estimates for the value of the total output from the global ocean economy vary but can be as much as, according to one study, US$3 trillion annually – what contributes to that is not always correctly attributed and ensuing investment is not equitably distributed.

For instance, 96% of fishers work in small-scale fisheries that are overwhelmingly (over 90%) in developing countries, grossly undervalued and often marginalised. Meanwhile 86% of fisheries subsidies globally go to large-scale fisheries – predominantly private sector fisheries from developed countries.

But neither small-scale nor large-scale fisheries operate in isolation. Ocean currents connect what happens on the high seas to what happens close to shore. Coastal communities, especially in developing countries, are particularly vulnerable to global problems, such as ocean acidification, pollution and climate change.

So, with national economies and large-scale corporations jostling for power and influence while small-scale operators often go unnoticed, how do we build a ‘blue economy’ that gives a fair share to everyone, in a way that protects the ocean as global commons? That was the exact question at the centre of ‘Towards an inclusive blue economy’, an IIED event in London at the end of February 2019, when participants offered their views on the key issues, some of which are captured here.

The ‘blue economy’ won’t be fair by default

The blue economy won’t necessarily be inclusive or sustainable. Business as usual could keep it the sort of grubby grey economy we’re used to, as is feared by Mitchell Lay, from the Caribbean Network of Fisherfolk Organisations. He said: “I’m a ‘small-scale fisher’. I see the blue economy as a serious threat to small-scale fisheries.

“I’ve seen a focused effort to influence political will away from small-scale fisheries. The blue economy should be about fishers, plus other sectors. Not the other way around. New businesses should have no negative effects on fisheries. Three hundred million people are involved in small-scale fisheries – and the SDGs are supposed to be about people.”

On the other hand, the blue economy should be a force for good. Sophia Kochalski, working on Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture for the German development organisation GIZ, says: “Two thirds of our partners have extensive coastlines. GIZ sees the blue economy as an opportunity for change. SDG14 [on life below water] is a chance to reach SDG1 and SDG2 [no poverty; zero hunger]. If the discussion isn’t linked to SDGs 1 and 2, I’ll be complaining!”

There are real opportunities right now. As well as the links to the SDGs, there is growing public awareness and concern on marine issues. The UN Decade for Ocean Science is coming up. Member states of the United Nations are negotiating a new legally binding instrument covering ‘Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ)’. The World Trade Organisation has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are helping countries value their small-scale fisheries.

It’s time for a sea change: on fair and inclusive ocean governance that sees the connections between the high seas and coastal communities; on properly valuing and supporting sustainable small-scale fisheries; and on stemming the tide of harmful subsidies so fiscal tools work better to support sustainable economic development for the ocean.

A largely lawless ocean
The high seas, more technically known as 'Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ)', start where national jurisdiction ends. Countries enjoy ‘sovereignty’ up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline (less if that would impinge on other national territories), but beyond that, in international waters, no state is sovereign – all countries are free to fish, navigate, fly over, and conduct research.UNCLOS – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – was agreed back in 1982 when mining the deep ocean floor in distant waters seemed impossible, high seas fishing looked insignificant, and no one was considering exploiting marine genetic resources. There is now a yawning ‘governance gap’.

Under UNCLOS, the ocean floor is recognised as a ‘Common Heritage of Mankind’ – with its benefits to be shared fairly by all people (and its use overseen by the International Seabed Authority). But that recognition extends only to non-living resources (“the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof”), leaving fish stocks and other living marine resources in a legal vacuum. Essentially, the international legal principle of ‘freedom of the high seas’, intended to protect navigation rights, risks generating a ‘free-for-all’ on exploitation.

New rules

Some of this gap is being addressed, in a lengthy process to negotiate a new International Legally Binding Instrument under UNCLOS on BBNJ. The instrument will regulate four areas:

  1. Marine genetic resources, including issues of access and benefit sharing
  2. Area-based management tools, including marine protected areas
  3. Environmental impact assessments, and
  4. Capacity building and transfer of marine technology.

Put simply, new rules are being drafted, and inevitably they’ll reflect the viewpoints of those doing the writing. So, given the vast scale of ocean resources, shouldn’t everyone have a say?

Not everyone recognises the opportunity, nor the urgency. Essam Yassin Mohammed, head of blue economy at IIED, explains: “The biggest challenge is to get developing countries to engage with the high seas. Developing countries that are not currently using international waters tend to say ‘isn’t it too remote to matter? Why should we get involved?’”

There are two pressing reasons. One is the interconnected nature of the oceans, which means even countries remote from the high seas will feel the effects of ocean exploitation.

The other is justice for all. For example, vessels from ten rich nations, including Japan, Korea, and Spain, take 71% of fishing catches from the high seas. And of all the patents on marine genetic materials, 98% are held by only 10 rich countries. Will they be keen to share when other countries develop oceanic fleets and industries? Some countries are arguing fish stocks should be excluded from rules on marine genetic resources, giving a hint of what might be ahead.

A common heritage?

IIED firmly believes that marine genetic resources of the high seas should be recognised as a Common Heritage of Mankind – as established for the seabed.

This case has to be put in careful legal terms, and IIED’s recent briefing sets out the argument. In summary: recent international case law, the growing recognition that environments can only be kept healthy by taking an integrated ‘ecosystem approach’ (as internationally recognised through the Convention on Biological Diversity), proposals to designate key high seas areas as World Natural Heritage Sites under the World Heritage Convention, the preamble to UNCLOS, and even the international ‘Human Right to Science’, all support the argument for declaring marine genetic resources to be a ‘common heritage’.

But there’s a way to go: it’s not yet an argument that’s universally acknowledged or represented in law, as Anca Leroy, lawyer and policy advisor to the French government, explains in her own capacity: “I make a distinction between the ocean as an ecosystem and the common heritage applying to mineral resources, and the request of developing countries for marine genetic resources. If States wanted to apply common heritage of mankind to marine genetic resources this would have been possible but would have implied the modification of UNCLOS, which would have not been acceptable for all Parties to UNCLOS.

“Current UNCLOS provisions (part XI) on common heritage apply only to sea bed minerals, not to marine genetic resources, and the mandate of negotiation given by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to develop a new treaty does not contain such a modification provision. Therefore the future BBNJ agreement cannot modify existing UNCLOS provisions.”

Connections, protections, and fluidity


Whoever governs them, the global ocean and inshore waters are far more interconnected than many realise. Ekaterina Popova, an ocean modeller at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, said: “Ecologically, [the high seas] are very much connected to coastal zones. There are two pieces of evidence for this. One is the migratory nature of species, often migrating through corridors between the high seas and coastal waters. The other is ocean currents. People don’t realise how fast and vigorous these are, and how tightly they connect to coastal waters. If you released a million yellow rubber ducks into the high seas, they’d start turning up in coastal waters within six months.”

Many coastal regions will be connected to the high seas, even if that connection is to distant areas far from land. (Conversely, complex interactions between prevailing winds, directional currents at the surface and at depth, and varying timescales, mean being close to the high seas doesn’t always translate into a strong connection.)

All this has two implications. One is that what happens out of sight of land – such as threats from over fishing, and marine pollution from shipping, mining and geoengineering experiments – should not remain ‘out of mind’ for coastal developing countries. They often have large coastal communities, and depend heavily on healthy marine ecosystems for nutrition, for livelihoods and for government revenues. In addition, they are already facing severe climate shocks.


The other implication is for how the new BBNJ instrument goes about establishing marine protected areas (MPAs). Popova adds: “Some areas of the high seas are much more influential than others – and that should influence where new marine protected areas are placed. Connectivity should be part of the criteria [for choosing MPAs] – they should not be based just on biodiversity hotspots.”

IIED's Mohammed goes further, saying that it’s not just biodiversity that flows with the currents, it’s economic potential and cultural importance too. Many fish species, for example, travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometres with ocean currents as adults (for breeding and feeding) and/or as larvae, before returning to shallower waters as juveniles. And marine turtles, culturally important in the Pacific, spend a significant part of their life in the high seas. So new protected areas need to consider these values too.

William Cheung, of the Nereus Program (University of British Columbia), points out that almost all of the stocks fished from the high seas are ‘straddling stocks’ that spend time within countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). In fact, recent research involving Cheung suggests simply closing the high seas to fishing might actually be ‘catch neutral’ overall, because restored straddling stocks would lead to higher catches within EEZs. This could lead to a much fairer global distribution of fisheries benefits.


The ecosystem benefits flowing from managed or protected areas in the high seas won’t flow evenly – some areas are better connected than others. A paper jointly authored by IIED and the UK’s National Oceanography Centre shows how the Central India Ocean, the Northern Bay of Bengal, the East Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific ‘high seas pockets’ (a region of ABNJ entirely surrounded by Pacific Island States’ EEZs), are the most crucial.

Given that resources for ocean protection are likely to be limited, it could be important to prioritise protection and management for regions that are most likely to benefit vulnerable coastal communities. That, in turn, would contribute to the SDGs on eliminating poverty and hunger. But when setting up protection, it will be crucial to realise benefit flows won’t be static. Biodiversity hot spots and connectivity patterns are likely to shift with climate change – so protected area boundaries will have to be moveable too.

These changing patterns also have implications for setting rules on Environmental Impact Assessments under the BBNJ instrument – different approaches will be needed at different times in different places.

Building capacity and transferring marine technology
If our complex ocean is for everyone, then every country needs to be able to not just share the benefits, but also to meet their obligations and responsibilities on conservation and sustainable use. That means many developing countries need to be helped to acquire better marine technology and better-trained people. In line with the rest of UNCLOS and also SDG14a, the BBNJ instrument will regulate technology transfer and capacity building, setting out requirements for cooperation and assistance on marine genetic resources, area-based management and environmental impact assessments.When it comes down to the detail, though, there’s disagreement. Should this cooperation be on ‘fair and reasonable terms’ (the wording already used in UNCLOS Part XIV)? ‘Fair’ and ‘reasonable’ are open to interpretation, so should there be ‘mutually agreed terms and conditions’ instead? And should cooperation come before access to resources, or the other way round?

Practical challenges

Even when rules are written, implementing them in practice remains tricky. Privately-owned marine technology can’t be redistributed by cooperating governments, so the new instrument should bolster developed countries’ duty to regulate the private sector, clearly linking resource access to technology transfer obligations. And it’s difficult to keep tabs on what is transferred, and even harder to ensure disparate efforts add up to a useful and coherent whole.

Effectively, marine technology transfer needs a clearing house mechanism (as already suggested in the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Criteria and Guidelines): an independent multilateral institution whose job it is to establish cooperative and inclusive multi-stakeholder partnerships and broker technology transfer and capacity building.

Fair and equitable partnerships need concerted, iterative dialogue to build understanding, especially between partners with unequal power. It’s important to return to the idea of connectivity. Deals done for the high seas send waves back that affect vulnerable coastal communities around the world – and these communities need a say, and a stewardship role.

What’s at stake in BBNJ negotiations?

There’s a growing ‘buzz’ about a ‘Paris Agreement for the ocean’, but will the BBNJ, with its already-defined scope, be enough? We need ambitious regulation that encompasses agreements on mining, fishing, climate change and so on, and which creates a strong set of protected areas and a sense of shared responsibility.Glen Wright, research fellow in international marine policy at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), sums up the current crisis in ocean governance: “Business as usual is not a pretty sight, to say the least. The treaty needs to be global, inclusive and focused on conservation. Everyone should have a say in how the global ocean is managed, not just powerful fishing nations, and we need to see its incredible biodiversity as a common resource, not something to carve up on a first-come, first-served basis.”

Fiscal reforms: rebalancing the money tools

Global ocean governance isn’t the only thing that needs rethinking to make it more inclusive. Fiscal tools – the subsidies, taxes, tariffs, fees and penalties policymakers use to try to direct the economy – need change.Although over 80% of the world’s fisheries are already fully or overexploited, many governments allocate capacity-enhancing subsidies to the industrialised fishing sector. In contrast, very little has been done to use fiscal tools for good – to support sustainability and environmental stewardship. And even less has been done to ensure subsidies don’t unfairly disadvantage vulnerable communities.Small-scale fisheries, which need to be part of the global ocean governance conversation, should be part of a national policy conversation too. If we’re going to hunt down harmful subsidies, we should be looking for those that hurt human societies as well as those that damage our environment.

Tools for change

So what if we could end harmful subsidies, reward innovation and sustainability, build government capacity to collect tax, and channel resources to distribute benefits more fairly?

IIED is researching these ideas. Fiscal tools can work either for or against the environment, and we’ve been specifically exploring how fiscal policy can help achieve SDG14. Three big fiscal instruments: taxes, conditional transfers/payments for ecosystem services and subsidies could all play a role.

Many argue taxes should be used more to discourage harmful fishing. But taxes have to be carefully thought through. Policymakers often design tax primarily to generate government revenue, rather than drive environmental benefits, meaning they are not as effective as they might be.

Tax avoidance can also have unintended consequences, such as undeclared landings and unregulated sales. That can undermine efforts to get better data on small-scale fisheries and, without data, policymakers ignore, undervalue, and even stigmatise small-scale fisheries.

Conditional transfers or incentives are ways to pay people to change their behaviour (IIED has a project investigating their use to support sustainable development). For example, conditional transfers might pay people to get involved in restoring mangrove habitats needed by juvenile fish. Compensation or reward might be money or in-kind given to local authorities or communities to offset the cost of investing in ecosystem services (sometimes called Ecological Fiscal Transfers) – for example to compensate fishers when no-take zones or protected areas affect their livelihoods.

However, it’s important to understand local contexts; poor communities may have other disadvantages that limit their ability to comply with such schemes. And gender aspects must always be addressed – incentive-based schemes aren’t inherently equitable. But, if carefully designed, targeted payments can help empower women and vulnerable groups, and can also help link schemes to big issues such as the SDGs.

Conditional transfers and incentives also offer a route to ‘mainstream’ ecosystem services into other economic sectors (such as water utilities, carbon reduction commitments, tourism), and ways to redirect revenues (perhaps from taxes and royalties, carbon and biodiversity offsets) to improved ecosystem management. IIED has developed a CT/PES toolkit drawing together experience from successful schemes that go beyond small pilots.

Subsidies overwhelmingly go to large-scale fishing, often supporting widespread overexploitation. The World Trade Organisation has been set a task under SDG14.6 to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. But subsidies can also be a force for good.

So what’s harmful and what’s beneficial? Below are two heartfelt opinions from IIED’s ‘Towards an inclusive blue economy’ event.

To rebalance the issue, it’s important to realise helpful subsidies can be indirect, for example bearing the cost of activities such as:

  • Running clean ups (perhaps using conditional transfers to pay for plastic removal)
  • Investing in enforcement; properly regulating coastal development
  • Paying for ecosystem services equitably
  • Setting up marine protected areas, and supporting local management
  • Supporting welfare – for example making safety gear tax exempt
  • Recycling tax revenues so they support sustainable fishing
  • Supporting small scale fishing along its value chain; and even
  • Government involvement in shaping the BBNJ instrument negotiations.

So the call to reform fiscal tools isn’t a mission to end all subsidies – just harmful ones. Better information is much needed, whether it’s on transparency, inclusion, or to fill data gaps. For instance, where stock information is poor, we have little idea what harm conventional capacity-building subsidies will do.

And when it comes to reforming fiscal tools, there’s a clear link between what’s going on with large-scale, heavily subsidised and minimally-regulated fisheries on the high seas, and what’s happening to the same stock in small-scale coastal fisheries.

But the biggest opportunity is to put communities back in the picture, alongside environmental protection. As IIED researcher Eugenia Merayo puts it: “Reform should work for fish and for people. The harmful vs beneficial subsidy discussion must include equity because subsidies that are harmful for the environment might be beneficial for vulnerable groups."

Certainly, reforming fiscal tools in fisheries needs to recognise social diversity and gender dimensions. At present, the focus is predominantly on fishing. But when a fiscal tool only reaches the fishers, its power for promoting gender equity is disappointingly small – because in small-scale fisheries men generally do most of the catching and women most of the processing.

Fiscal reform needs some groundwork, asking questions such as: ‘who benefits?’, ‘who is harmed?’ and ‘who is left out?’ IIED has prepared a ‘fair fishing’ toolkit to help governments and policymakers work through these issues.

In the end, countries need a balance between local, national, and even international action and responsibilities. Kitty Brayne, of Blue Ventures, says: “Remote communities are willing to manage local resources. But in Madagascar, fisheries management associations talk more about business matters than about management rules. That’s understandable – these fishers are earning less than $2 a day.

“We need more equity in the supply chain. We need to be giving these fishers a voice at national level. The blue economy needs to recognise, enable and reward local measures, putting vulnerable communities at the forefront. The top-down approach isn’t working. We need bottom-up measures to empower the people who depend on these resources.”

 An illustration from the 'Towards an inclusive blue economy' event hosted by IIED summing up discussions on what fiscal tools can make fisheries work for the environment and people, and how data can help us to understand the value of small-scale fisheries to national economies.
Small-scale fisheries? Actually, they’re huge
These arguments to include local voices in discussions all the way up from small-scale habitat management to international ocean governance aren’t only based on equity. As Brayne puts it, “We say ‘small-scale fishers’, but this sector isn’t small at all – it’s huge.”

‘Small-scale’ fisheries are vital to national economies, and involve around 12 million fishers compared to about half a million in large scale fishing globally. (And remember around 120 million livelihoods are supported along the value chain.)

Take the Maldives’ tuna fisheries, for example, which catch one fish at a time with a hook and line, and are the second largest contributor to local GDP, employing 20% of the local workforce.

Yet there’s a widespread assumption that small-scale fisheries are high-risk outfits, bringing little return on investment, and taking without putting much back. Why? Editrudith Lukanga, the executive director of Environment Management and Economic Development Organization (EMEDO), in Tanzania, says: “Lack of data is what makes small-scale fisheries different. In the developing world, their contribution to national GDP appears minimal. So policymakers look down on them.”

And small-scale fishers aren’t just marginalised, they are under threat. They struggle with poor processing and marketing infrastructure, are forced to compete with industrial fleets, face threats from pollution, overexploited resources and so on, and have few alternative livelihood opportunities.

When catches go unrecorded, or are sold in informal markets, it’s difficult to track the value to a country. We urgently need better information: on fisheries values; what investments are needed (and what the returns might be); how investment should be distributed (for example to ensure gender equity); and whether fisheries are, or might remain, sustainable.