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.
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.
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:
- Marine genetic resources, including issues of access and benefit sharing
- Area-based management tools, including marine protected areas
- Environmental impact assessments, and
- 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.)