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Reckoning on the high seas











Trevor Manuel, José María Figueres & David Miliband
Co-chairs, The Global Ocean Commission

The global ocean faces multiple threats and is suffering alarming ecosystem decline. Science informs us that the pressure on it is predominantly human inflicted. It is our collective responsibility to act now, and decisively reverse this condition. Failure to do so would be an unforgivable betrayal.

The Global Ocean Commission, an independent initiative, aims to turn the tide by reversing the cycle of declining ocean health, boosting its resilience and moving towards a cycle of recovery. Leading marine experts have helped us identify the most important drivers of ocean decline, and together we have devised an ambitious, yet practical, package of targeted proposals to deliver restoration. They will require strong commitments and partnerships among governments, civil society, the private sector and science.

We must all grasp both the ocean's immense importance and value to humanity, and the huge pressures it faces. We have already come a long way. It is no longer the forgotten link in global discussions and the public is increasingly aware that it is vital for our planet's life cycles. We now need to build on this progress as the ocean, and particularly its high seas, remains chronically undervalued and neglected. Everyone must come to know that the ocean produces half the oxygen we breathe; that it shields us from the impacts of climate change by absorbing 90 per cent of the extra heat we generate; and that it provides food and jobs for tens of millions of the world’s poorest people.

It must also be known that we continue to strip the ocean of its living resources. Ninety per cent of large predatory fish are already gone. Our carbon emissions are causing unprecedented rates of ocean acidification and warming. And governance and regulatory systems are way behind what science tells us is needed, and are failing to manage this great global commons sustainably and equitably.

As a result, wild-west-style lawlessness extends over the high seas, which cover no less than 45 per cent of the surface of the planet. The beneficiaries are the very few states and businesses with the capacity – mainly thanks to subsidies – to exploit resources that should be the common heritage of humankind. The victims are the poor, whose fish stocks dwindle and who are excluded from the global race to access the fish, minerals, energy sources and genetic materials that the high seas can yield.

We will all be victims if we do not combat the drivers of ocean decline: rising demand for resources, including fish, minerals and energy; technological advances that enable their extraction over wider and deeper areas; declining fish stocks caused by overcapacity and illegal fishing; loss of biodiversity and habitat due to climate change, destructive fishing and pollution; and weak, fragmented and poorly implemented high-seas governance.

A continuing inability to manage the ocean justly and responsibly is one of the great failures of contemporary international governance. Rectifying it, however, could stand as one of the great achievements of our modern age.
Realising this, is giving rise to an inspiring growing global consensus on the need for change. At the Rio+20 summit, states committed “to address, on an urgent basis, the issue of the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction including by taking a decision on the development of an international instrument under UNCLOS (the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea)”.

The Global Ocean Commission – like a growing majority of countries – actively advocates negotiating an implementing agreement under UNCLOS that allows the designation of high seas Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), agrees to common targets, and establishes mechanisms to advance implementation and compliance, including through prior environmental assessment. This is necessary if the convention is to change from being a 20th century device, no longer fit for purpose, into a universal legislative framework for the whole ocean that can deal with new and emerging pressures.

Proven steps can be taken to reverse current trends in fisheries and restore stocks to levels where they would produce even more to feed a growing population. The Commission proposes the logical step of insisting that mandatory International Maritime Organization numbers and tracking – already required for merchant vessels – are extended to all fishing vessels in the high seas longer than 24 metres or heavier than 100 gross tonnes. This would help close the market for illegal fishing.
The Commission is also demanding a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for the ocean within the Post-2015 UN Sustainable Development Agenda, thus confirming that its health is a top global priority. We recommend that this incorporates clear targets and indicators aimed at sustainable fishing, MPAs, reducing biodiversity loss and eliminating plastics pollution. Since the livelihoods of over 3 billion people are estimated to depend on marine and coastal biodiversity, there can be no question that the ocean deserves the visibility and resources that a dedicated SDG will bring.

The Commission also recognizes the importance of the “blue economy” to the sustainability of the high seas and calls on all countries both to accelerate progress on ocean governance by working within the United Nations system and to develop capacity for ocean states to engage more robustly with the national, regional and global ocean governance processes – all of which affect the value derived from the ocean.

These are just a sample of the actions in the Global Ocean Commission’s rescue package for the high seas. They should be supported by a new independent Global Ocean Accountability Board to benchmark progress and maintain pressure.

It is reckoning time. The well-signposted dangers accumulating beneath the waves need to be brought to the surface. There is a unique opportunity for change, through near-simultaneous negotiations on the proposed UNCLOS implementing agreement, the post-2015 UN goals, and the next generation of climate change commitments to be agreed in December 2015. It must not be missed! If we continue to plunder the high seas, there will be an inevitable “tragedy of the commons”, a degraded, unproductive ocean. This is not an option. We need a healthy ocean if humanity is to survive and we now have the capacity to secure it on our watch.

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