A place of weak laws and poor governance

Sustainable ocean management

Clare Brook, CEO of the BLUE Marine Foundation, asks that we seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to safeguard life in international waters

Much attention has been paid of late to the amount of pollution – particularly plastic – which is pouring into the ocean, creating vast gyres of waste while starving and choking marine animals. But arguably an even more serious threat is posed by what we humans are taking out of the ocean, as opposed to what we are putting in. Over-extraction on an unprecedented, industrial scale of fish and their habitats is curbing the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Just as by burning the Amazon rainforest humans are destroying the lungs of our own planet, in stripping the ocean of its life we are destroying our main climate regulator.

Scientists agree that at least 30 per cent of the world’s ocean needs to be protected from the ravages of overfishing if fish stocks and habitats are to recover to a sustainable level and the oceans are able to continue performing their vital climate-regulating functions. Progress is being made in designating large-scale marine protected areas so that around 7.4 per cent of the world’s ocean is now protected from industrial fishing. The British government has committed to protect at least 30 per cent of its 6.8 million square kilometre exclusive economic zone – the fifth largest in the world, thanks to Britain’s far-flung overseas territories. But to make the quantum leap from 7.4 per cent worldwide to 30 per cent will entail not only other nations with large ocean estates committing to protect them, but will also require that the high seas – the areas beyond national jurisdiction – be protected.

The high seas cover 61 per cent of the area of the ocean and 43 per cent of the Earth’s surface. They are a ‘common inheritance’, belonging to no sovereign power and so, theoretically, to every man, woman and child on the planet. On land, most frontiers have long been settled and tamed, and their freedoms curtailed by law. But beyond the reach of national control, the world’s last frontier – the high seas and, within them, the deep sea – is still a place where weak laws and poor governance allow plunder to continue almost unchecked.

As a consequence of neglect, and a failure to manage the oceans, allied with opportunity and greed, high seas and deep-sea marine life has suffered. Many of our most iconic species, like albatrosses, turtles and sharks, have undergone dramatic declines in the space of a few decades. Deep-sea habitats like cold-water corals and sponge fields, sometimes centuries old, have been smashed by heavy fishing gear dragged along the seabed. Even species meant to be under close management have declined, highlighting the failure of the organisations charged to oversee their exploitation to deliver even on this narrow mandate. For example, the Pacific bluefin tuna has collapsed to less than 3 per cent of its historic abundance, yet still, even in this dangerously depleted state, continues to be fished. Resources that belong to the whole world are being squandered.

The effects of the problem

Dolphins. Resources that belong to the whole world are being squandered. Photo: BLUE

What few people understand is that this is not just a question of securing a future food supply. The high seas may appear to be empty expanses of water when viewed from above, but in fact they are home to a wealth of marine life and ecosystems which play a vital part in regulating the planet’s temperature. Life in the sunlit surface layer sustains a twilight and midnight world that extends to the floor of the abyss, 4,000–6,000 metres down, and then further still into trenches deeper than the Himalayas are tall. Just below the productive surface is the mesopelagic twilight zone, which is home to a bizarre menagerie that undertakes the greatest migration on Earth: every night, under cover of darkness, a huge variety of creatures move upward from depths of several hundred metres to feast on plankton or to prey upon other animals in the productive surface layer, then retreat to the depths as morning nears. These creatures include lanternfish with flashlight-patterned skins, bioluminescent jellyfish, blood-red squid as big as tuna or grape-sized with bodies like glass. Despite the lack of sunlight, perhaps 90 per cent of the world’s fish by weight inhabit these twilit depths. Their daily migrations – feeding at the surface, pooping deep down – contribute to a phenomenon known as the biological pump, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transferring it to the deep sea where it may be locked away.

Without the activity of these creatures, Earth’s atmosphere would contain an estimated 50 per cent greater concentration of carbon dioxide and the world would be far hotter. For most of history, this fragile world has lain unseen, far beyond the reach of human influence or harm. But now, even the remotest places in the sea and its deepest depths are under threat, as activities such as bottom trawling and deep-sea mining destroy habitats before we have a chance to explore and understand them. These extraordinary places which serve such a vital biological function are among the least protected ecosystems in the world.

A potential solution

The threat to life in the high seas – ultimately a threat to human life on Earth – resulting from the ever-increasing human demands on them has prompted a historic effort by the United Nations to increase their protection and reform their management. Recognising a drastic decline in biodiversity, the rising tide of negative results and the absence of effective governance, countries of the United

Nations have convened an Intergovernmental Conference on the Protection of Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction; its aim is to develop an international legally binding instrument to enable the protection of marine life and habitats outside national jurisdictions. The first of four meetings was held in September 2018, and the process is expected to end in 2020.

Issues for negotiation include the need for comprehensive environmental impact assessments for activities on the high seas, capacity building for management and conservation, the international sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources, and the use of area-based management tools, including marine protected areas (MPAs). With regard to the latter, in its deliberations the United Nations Intergovernmental Conference must consider how to develop mechanisms for conservation that enable the world to meet international obligations under UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) to protect wildlife of the high seas and deep sea. It must also create a mechanism to fill a gaping hole in the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD is intended to protect the world’s wildlife – but can only be applied by nations in their own territories or on vessels carrying their flag. That leaves nearly half of the surface of Earth virtually unprotected.

BLUE’s part in the solution

Mesopelagic jellyfish
Mesopelagic jellyfish – a member of a bizarre menagerie that helps regulate the planet’s temperature. Photo: NOAA

BLUE is keen to do all it can as a small organisation to ensure these negotiations result in meaningful protection of the high seas, but of course we can’t do it alone. We are part of the High Seas Alliance, a group of around 20 non-governmental organisations working together to secure the most ambitious United Nations treaty possible. BLUE also seeks to raise awareness of the issue and bring together leading thinking to coalesce policy. On 5 June 2019, BLUE convened a conference in London to bring together scientific, legal, environmental and political expertise to discuss what a UK negotiating position within the high seas treaty process should look like. The conference shared scientific and economic perspectives on high seas management and it also looked at high seas issues through a human rights lens, from the perspective of the Commonwealth group of nations and from a military angle. Participants were then tasked with defining how meaningful high seas protections could be shaped in the fields of politics, law, deep-sea mining and high seas management.

An overall conclusion from the discussion was the vital need to make tangible the connection between the high seas, which have been seen as vast, distant and untouchable, and the world’s people and communities.

BLUE sees a particular need to emphasise the connection between the high seas, particularly the extraordinary nocturnal migration in the twilight zone and the regulation of the planet’s temperature, as described above. The high seas not only belong to every man, woman and child on the planet; they are vital to our future existence.

The Intergovernmental Conference meets again in late March 2020 at the United Nations in New York for what will be the final session in the treaty process. In the event of a comprehensive new treaty being agreed and ratified it is BLUE’s ambition to use the legal framework to campaign for a precautionary ban on deep-sea mining and fishing in the mesopelagic ‘twilight zone’ of the ocean until the scientific consequences of these activities are better understood.

BLUE believes that linking the crisis in our oceans to mass concern over the global climate emergency could finally be the thing that triggers political action to protect the high seas.

There is an opportunity to secure protection in one part of the world, but the process is tortuous, and – as with every environmental threat – we are running out of time.

The BLUE Marine Foundation is a UK ocean conservation charity. For more information, see: www.bluemarinefoundation.com