A new report from an independent commission warns that our oceans are on the verge of collapse. Human threats like overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution have grown at an unprecedented rate in recent decades, and will lead to the decimation of marine ecosystems unless immediate action is taken.
"Benign neglect by the majority, and active abuse by the minority, have fuelled a cycle of decline," suggests the Global Ocean Commission in a report on ocean health published this week. The Commission, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and based out of the University of Oxford, is headed by ocean experts and influential political leaders from around the globe.
The problem of unsustainable fishing practices on the high seas is a focal point of the report. The so-called "freedom of the high seas", a doctrine enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, established an area of international waters that lies outside the jurisdiction of any one nation, and begins 200 nautical miles from shore. According to the Commission, the high seas, which constitute 64% of the world's oceans, are "being exploited by those with the money and ability to do so, with little sense of responsibility or social justice".
The Commission is calling for world governments to take immediate action in stopping those industrial practices that pose the greatest threat to our oceans. "Unless we turn the tide on ocean decline within five years, the international community should consider turning the high seas into an off-limits regeneration zone until its condition is restored," suggested José María Figueres, co-chair of the Commission and former president of Costa Rica.
Although there are a handful of regulations and agencies governing commercial access to the high seas, the Commission has outlined "serious gaps in the global ocean governance system" that "add up to a systemic weakness that allows threats such as illegal fishing and the destruction of marine biodiversity to continue".
Perhaps the most worrying finding outlined in the report is the acceleration of the exploitation of these regulatory gaps, and the dramatic impact this is having on fish stocks. At the time the UN approved the Convention in the 1980s, 39% of fish species were classified as exploited, overexploited or collapsed. Three decades later, this number has spiked to 87%. This is partly due to technological innovation that has allowed the fishing, mining, and oil and gas industries to exploit what were once inaccessible areas of the oceans. The high seas, once protected by their inhospitable remoteness, have been systematically transformed into what Commission co-chair David Miliband has dubbed "plundered territory".
“The high seas, once protected by their inhospitable remoteness, have been systematically transformed into plundered territory.”
In an effort to rectify the damage caused by our "Wild West" approach to high seas resource management, the Global Ocean Commission has launched the Mission Ocean initiative. Their eight-part solution, intended to be rolled out over the next five years, aims to put a stop to overfishing, as well as clamp down on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing around the globe. They aim to close regulatory gaps through robust enforcement of current international agreements and establish binding environmental standards for offshore oil and gas industries.
Although much of the report focuses on the kinds of things that must be done by international regulatory bodies in order to save our oceans, there is one area where the average citizen can play a role: the reduction of plastic in our oceans. According to the report, "plastics are by far the most abundant and problematic type of marine debris". Recent reports suggest that plastic waste causes $13 billion in damage to marine ecosystems each year. Reducing our reliance on plastics – something that individuals can do on a daily basis – is a simple step all of us can take to halt our rush toward marine collapse.
While the report paints a gloomy picture of the oceans' health, its primary focus is on the positive steps needed to reverse the current decline. It is in all of our best interests to heed its warnings: the fate of the earth's oceans is inextricably linked with the fate of our own species.
Top header image: Colorado Al, Flickr