Global Ocean Commission Calls for Sweeping International Reforms

New report targets high seas fishing, drilling, and pollution.

An international panel of former heads of state, government ministers, and prominent business leaders is calling for world leaders to protect the ocean by adopting a sweeping "five-year rescue package."

The report released Tuesday by the Global Ocean Commission recommends that the United Nations and national governments restrict fishing in international waters, eliminate fishing subsidies, step up the fight against illegal fishing, reduce pollution, and establish greater international cooperation on marine issues.

Nations must "intervene to reduce degradation of the ocean, and it must be forceful," commission co-chair Trevor Manuel tells National Geographic.

The independent, 17-member commission—launched in February 2013 by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the University of Oxford, Adessium Foundation, and Oceans 5—spent 18 months researching and drafting the report.

The commission's conclusions have been widely anticipated by policymakers at the UN and in many nations, in part due to the political clout of the commissioners. Members include Carol Browner, the former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; David Miliband, the former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom; and Paul Martin, a former prime minister of Canada.

Without swift action to combat overfishing, pollution, and other problems, the commission argues, the world's food supply and biodiversity are at great risk. The ocean, the commission notes, provides half of the planet's oxygen, absorbs half of man-made carbon emissions, and is the beginning of the food chain.

"It's clearly important that nations raise the bar on international cooperation around the ocean," says Manuel, a veteran politician from South Africa who served as the country's minister of finance for 13 years.

One of the commission's most dramatic recommendations is for subsidies for fishing in international waters to be capped immediately and eliminated entirely within five years. The move could essentially end fishing on the so-called high seas because the commission found that, without the financial assistance provided by ten nations, the practice would not be financially viable.

If such significant steps are not taken within five years, then the high seas should be closed to all fishing to allow stocks to recover, the report says.

More Fish for All

Although only about ten percent of the global fish catch is now taken from the high seas, completely cutting off that resource is "likely to face some opposition" from fishing groups, says Manuel.

Still, if such a serious measure is taken, it will eventually increase the amount of fish that spill over into territorial waters still open to fishing, he says.

Rashid Sumaila, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who studies the fishing industry, told National Geographic that when he first suggested closing the high seas to fishing at a meeting in Cape Town a few years ago, "people thought it was crazy."

But he says the data show that the top ten fishing countries—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Spain, the United States, Chile, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and France—are fishing the value out of the high seas even though "it is supposed to be owned by all world citizens." Therefore, many countries, especially developing nations, will support giving the high seas a chance to recover, which will eventually mean more fish for all, Sumaila says.

The commissioners also call for mandatory tracking of all vessels fishing in international waters and a ban on ship-to-ship transfer of fish at sea, a practice common in pirate, or illegal, fishing.

Both the Obama administration and the European Union have recently highlighted the scale of the global pirate fishing problem, which is estimated to be responsible for 20 percent of the total fish catch. Although a number of regional fishing entities are charged with regulating activities in different parts of the high seas, enforcement has been difficult, standards have been uneven, and the results have been mixed, the report warns. (See: "One in Three Fish Imported Into U.S. May Be Illegal.")

The report also calls for governments to do more to curb the flow of plastics into the ocean and to set binding regulations on offshore oil and gas development.

In addition, the report urges world leaders to create a stronger international framework for regulating the ocean. One step would be renegotiating 1982's UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. never ratified but many nations did.

Manuel calls the convention "very useful" but says it has become outdated because of advancements in marine technology and scientific understanding of the ocean. The original focus was on allowing free navigation of vessels across the 64 percent of the ocean that lies outside national jurisdiction, but, Manuel says, "the world needs to think about the responsibilities that go along with that freedom."

Better Governance?

The proposal to increase UN oversight of the ocean is certain to draw opposition. In an article this week, conservative writer Luis R. Miranda accuses the UN of wanting to "confiscate the most important natural resource the planet has" by shifting power "from the hands of the many to those of a few global oligarchs."

But Manuel says that if current governance systems were working, "we wouldn't need to make such a radical call."

Lance Morgan, a marine ecologist and president of the Marine Conservation Institute in Glen Ellen, California, says, "It is critical that we get improved governance on the high seas."

Right now, different treaties cover such activities as navigation, seabed mining, fishing, pollution, and so on. "The idea of an implementing agreement through the UN is a step that is really needed to bring structure to the high seas," he says.

Ghislaine Maxwell, an ocean advocate who heads the TerraMar Project, which builds awareness around the high seas, adds, "Fish don't vote, but people do, so if people in enough numbers complain, then that combined with the high-level discussions of the Global Ocean Commission will drive the change that's needed."

The report also recommends updating the UN Convention to include provisions that allow for the creation of marine protected areas on the high seas.

President Obama's recent call for a vast marine protected area around remote islands in the Pacific is "a very important starting point" for discussing these issues, says Manuel, but "now we have to drive this agenda into the UN."

The report calls for the appointment of a special UN representative for the ocean and formal adoption of ocean health as an official sustainable development goal. That would set in motion funding opportunities through the World Bank, governments, and various other entities.

Maxwell believes that such a move could transform the world's approach to the high seas.

"Think about what happened to the issues of women's health, malaria, and HIV after they were included in the UN's Millenium Development Goals," she says. "Billions of dollars were unleashed and public-private partnerships were formed."

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