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From decline to recovery

Julian Parker OBE outlines the Global Ocean Commission’s eight proposals for stimulating a cycle of ocean recovery

The Global Ocean Commission was established in February 2013 as an independent organisation with the objective of formulating politically and technically feasible recommendations to address four key areas on the high seas: overfishing, large-scale loss of habitat and biodiversity, the lack of effective management and enforcement, and deficiencies in high seas governance.

The Commission is a group of seventeen prominent individuals, and, as their Executive Secretary Simon Reddy stated in last year’s Maritime Media Awards programme, ‘the status of the Commissioners provides a unique opportunity to elevate ocean concerns up to the highest echelons of government and business.’ He went on to point out that ‘the Commission understands full well that in a global society of seven billion people, shortly rising to nine billion, there is limited scope for idealism. The real issue is how we can govern and manage the global ocean so we can derive the maximum sustainable benefits from it while allowing nature to flourish.’

The Commission published its first major report in June 2014 under the title From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean. The report contains eight key proposals, based on rigorous consideration of the latest scientific analysis from ocean experts, combined with broad stakeholder engagement.

Eight proposals for action

Proposal 1. UN Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean – putting a healthy living ocean at the heart of development

Given the importance of the global ocean to issues of environmental sustainability, social justice, equity and governance, the Commission strongly supports and wishes to add its voice to the proposals made at the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aimed at a standalone Ocean SDG.

  • Target 1 Ensure that all fish stocks are being fished sustainably.
  • Target 2 Protect vulnerable marine areas.
  • Target 3 Reduce biodiversity loss.
  • Target 4 Eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
  • Target 5 Reduce by 50% quantities of plastic debris entering the oceans.

Proposal 2. Governing the high seas – promoting care and recovery Current ocean governance arrangements do not ensure sufficient protection for high seas biological diversity, nor do they foster the sustainable and equitable use of marine living resources.

  • Aim 1 Strengthening UNCLOS (the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) through a new implementing agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction.
  • Aim 2 Universal ratification of UNCLOS and UNFSA (the UN Fish Stock Agreement of 1995) and the establishment of an annual meeting of States Parties to UNFSA.
  • Aim 3 Prompt entry into force and implementation of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) Port State Measures Agreement 2009.
  • Aim 4 Appointment of a UN Special Representative for the ocean.
  • Aim 5 Creation of regional ocean management organisations to promote ecosystem-based management of the high seas.
  • Aim 6 Appointment of ocean envoys or ministers by heads of state or governments.

Proposal 3. No more overfishing – ending harmful high seas subsidies

The size of the world’s fishing fleets is currently two-and-a-half times what is necessary to sustainably catch global fish stocks. The Commission asks WTO (World Trade Organization) Member States to urgently adopt a three-step approach to dealing with this problem.

  • Step 1 Transparency: full disclosure of fisheries subsidies. WTO Member States are under an obligation to report on specific subsidies, but they do not all report on the details of their fisheries subsidies.
  • Step 2 Classification of fisheries subsidies in order to identify those that are harmful, as an essential step in the phase-out of negative incentives.
  • Step 3 Immediate capping and then phasing out of high seas fishing subsidies within five years.

Proposal 4. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing – closing seas, ports and markets

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on the high seas has significant negative ecological, economic and social impacts, and disproportionately affects developing countries.

  • At sea – Mandatory IMO (International Maritime Organization) numbers and tracking, already in place for merchant vessels, to be extended to fishing vessels fishing on the high seas. Ban at-sea transhipment of fish. All flag states to be party to UNCLOS and UNFSA. RFMOs (regional fisheries management organisations) to maintain coordinated lists of illegal fishing.
  • In port – Ratify and implement PSMA (the Port State Measures Agreement). Illegal fishing vessels should have their flags removed, be refused access to ports and not be allowed access to markets. Port states should cooperate with RFMOs and monitor all fishing vessels entering their ports.
  • Fish to table – Stakeholders to work together to build a real-time global information-sharing platform on high seas fishing. Seafood retailers and food processors to commit to sourcing sustainable seafoods including full traceability. Civil society organisations to step up their role as independent watchdogs.

Proposal 5. Plastics – keeping them out of the ocean

Plastics are a major source of pollution on the high seas and a threat to humans and the environment. This reflects poor handling and waste management practices on land and requires a combination of political and regulatory action supported by an increase in consumer awareness. In particular, the Commission calls for coordinated action by governments, the private sector and civil society to eliminate plastics entering the global ocean – including by:

  • Minimising single-use plastics by direct government intervention and consumer incentives.
  • Creating incentives to promote recycling, including single polymer products and extended producer responsibility.
  • Establishing time-bound, quantitative reduction targets.
  • Improving waste management. n Promoting consumer awareness.
  • Addressing lost and discarded fishing gear.
  • Exploring taxation and other levies to establish a Global Marine Responsibility Fund to build waste management capacity, coordinate action to combat marine plastics, grow sustainability initiatives, and change the behaviour of industry and consumers.

Proposal 6. Offshore oil and gas – establishing binding international safety standards and liability

The Commission supports efforts to adopt and improve international safety and environmental standards for offshore drilling on the continental shelf, including regional protocols to establish and implement such standards, with provision for response-preparedness and capacity building in developing countries. In line with the polluter-pays principle, the Commission also supports the development of an international liability convention to cover damage to the marine environment from offshore oil and gas installations.

Proposal 7. Global ocean accountability board – monitoring progress toward a healthy ocean

The Commission recommends the establishment of an independent Global Ocean Accountability Board to monitor and assess whether sufficient progress is being made towards achieving the proposals recommended by the Commission through which to reverse the degradation of, and then regenerate, the global ocean and to secure effective and equitable governance. The Board would benchmark, on a regular basis, the progress being made by the international community towards meeting the specific proposals contained in this report, and make this information public.

Proposal 8. Creating a high seas regeneration zone

The Commission is concerned to ensure that if the health of the global ocean does not improve, then consequences should follow to save this vital natural resource. The Global Ocean Accountability Board should provide independent monitoring of progress. If it reports continued decline after a period of five years, or a similarly short period, then the world community of states should consider turning the high seas – with the exception of those areas where RFMO action is effective – into a regenerative zone where industrial fishing is prevented.


This comprehensive report addresses the threat to the health of the oceans through over-exploitation. It argues persuasively that the tipping point has passed and action needs to be taken by the international community to respond. The wastage is unaffordable, and the loss of maximum sustainable yields by overfishing loads an unethical burden on societies across the world. The Commission is now working towards implementation, but first the focus is on presenting the findings in international forums, including the United Nations; at government level, particularly among developing countries; and at major conferences concerned with international and regional fishing issues, the environment and climate change. The next phase will be to develop an implementation strategy based on the consultative process carried out during the presentation phase. This strategy will be driven strongly by the Commissioners, who are committed to seeing their findings turned into action. The call for action is being promoted as Mission Ocean.