Mission Ocean

From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean

The Global Ocean Commission has been on a voyage of discovery about the global ocean – its importance, its peril and its potential. They listened to experts from science, academia, business and NGOs and identified eight proposals that show what needs to be done to stimulate a cycle of ocean recovery.

Proposal 1

UN Sustainable Development Goal for the Ocean

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The ocean is vital to the health of the entire planet and the wellbeing of humanity: it is a major source of food; it sustains economies and provides jobs; and it is the great biological pump that drives and regulates global climate, water and nutrient cycles. But this vital importance is too often forgotten; for instance, reference to the ocean was almost non-existent in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This oversight must not be repeated when UN Member States agree to a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the MDGs for the 2015–2030 period.

The Global Ocean Commission is thus calling for a stand-alone SDG for the ocean, to recognise the essential contribution it makes to sustainable development, and to place the ocean front and centre in the UN post-2015 development agenda.

The Commission is following the negotiations of the SDGs closely, and actively supporting the many countries which are strongly in favour of an Ocean SDG, especially small island developing states from the South Pacific for which the ocean is their major source of livelihood. The proposed set of SDGs will be presented to the UN General Assembly before September 2014. To help ensure that they include a separate SDG for the ocean, the Commission has developed a proposed goal that includes detailed, measurable targets and indicators relevant to the high seas.

Proposal 2

Governing the High Seas

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International regulations are failing to preserve the high seas, and to manage its valuable resources sustainably and fairly. The existing governance structure is insufficient, weak and chaotic, and is often not respected. Political leadership is needed to strengthen high seas governance and make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

With this in mind, the Global Ocean Commission is calling for:

  • A new global agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in international waters;

  • All countries to adhere to ‘the constitution of the ocean’ (UNCLOS) and other relevant international agreements, and to apply them;

  • The appointment, by the UN Secretary-General, of a high level UN Special Representative for the Ocean, to coordinate all areas related to the ocean and the law of the sea, and provide the leadership needed for action;

  • Regular independent reviews of regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) to make them accountable for their environmental performance;

  • Regional ocean management organisations (ROMOs) to be created – or formed by adapting existing organisations – that are responsible for the preservation and productivity of the entire ecosystem, rather than only fish resources or specific species;

  • Ocean envoys or ministers to be appointed at country level, to create stronger coordination between ministries responsible for fishing, environment, climate, development, mining and other ocean-related issues.

Proposal 3

No More Overfishing

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Fish stocks are poorly managed and overfished. There are ‘too many boats trying to catch too few fish’ yet, despite this clear overcapacity, governments still grant at least US$30 billion a year in fisheries subsidies. About 60% of these subsidies directly encourage unsustainable practices.

High seas fishing is not equitable. Only fishers from those countries that can afford to subsidise their fleets with public funds can fish in these remote ocean areas; poor countries are excluded. Vessels need to consume huge amounts of fuel in order to travel to the high seas to fish. Fuel subsidies (which generally take the form of tax exemptions) amount to 30% of government fisheries spending. Most high seas fishing is carried out by just 10 nations, most of them developed countries. If it were not for State subsidies, these high seas fishing industries would not be financially viable.

Despite repeated international commitments over the last decade, negotiations under the World Trade Organization have failed to reach an agreement on fisheries subsidies.

The Global Ocean Commission is calling for three major steps:

  1. Full transparency – countries should disclose and account for all their public spending in the fisheries sector;

  2. The international community should reach agreement on the classification of different subsidies and clearly identify those that are harmful.

  3. States should agree to immediately cap fuel subsidies for high seas fisheries, and to eliminate them within five years.

Proposal 4

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing

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Illegal fishing severely undermines all existing conservation and management measures in place for fish stocks. It costs the global economy between US$10 and US$23.5 billion a year, and is largely carried out by vessels from a handful of countries that do not adhere to or comply with international regulations.

Poor countries, which do not have the capacity to monitor their waters and whose vital resources diminish because of illegal pillage, are the worst affected. Illegal fishing is also linked to other forms of criminality as fishing vessels can also be used for smuggling people, drugs and weapons. The illegality of the practice needs to be established, the likelihood of being caught and sanctioned needs to be increased, and illegally caught fish must be prevented from entering markets.

In order to combat and end illegal fishing, the Global Ocean Commission is calling for:

  • All high seas fishing vessels to carry a unique identification number and transponders, in order to be internationally identifiable and tracked in real time;
  • The banning of at-sea transshipment of fish;
  • Countries to adhere to international regulations relating to port entry control (Port State Measures Agreement);
  • Countries should adhere and comply with regional fisheries organisations and arrangements for high seas fish stocks and monitor activities of their nationals and fishing vessels;
  • Regional fisheries organisations should share information on potential illegal activities with other organisations and with enforcement agencies, and maintain coordinated lists of suspected illegal fishing vessels;
  • Illegal fishing vessels should have their flags removed, be refused access to ports and not be allowed access to markets for the fish that they have caught;
  • Countries should monitor all fishing vessels entering their ports, and deny entry to suspected illegal operators and their catch;
  • Governments should collaborate with industry and affected stakeholders to create a global information-sharing platform able to monitor and exchange data on all fishing vessels movements in real time, and so deter IUU fishing;
  • Retailers should commit to sourcing sustainable seafood and adopting effective traceability schemes;
  • Civil society organisations should step-up in their role as independent watchdogs to ensure the application of international and regional regulations. Local, national, and international authorities should collaborate with such independent watchdogs.
Proposal 5

Plastics - Keeping them out of the Ocean

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Plastics are a major source of pollution on the high seas and constitute a health threat to both people and the environment. Debris entangles or suffocates seabirds, turtles and marine mammals, and plastic microparticles bio-accumulate, poisoning fish and entering the food chain.

Over 80% of the plastics found in the ocean come from the land, reflecting very poor and irresponsible waste management. However, political and regulatory action is lacking and consumers are not sufficiently aware of the problem.

World plastics production is estimated to increase by over 100 times based on 2010 production levels, from 270 million in 2010 to 33 billion in 2050, a percentage of which will end up in the ocean unless preventative action is taken.

Once it is in the ocean, plastic is very hard to remove, therefore the Commission is calling for coordinated action by governments, the private sector and civil society to stop plastics entering the ocean in the first place. Proposed actions include:

  • Establishing time-bound quantitative reduction targets;

  • Creating incentives to promote recycling and extend producer responsibility.

  • Restricting or banning certain unsustainable uses (e.g. disposable plastic bags and polyurethane packaging);

  • Encouraging the promotion and innovation of substitute materials and better recycling systems;

  • Increasing consumer awareness.

The Commission is also concerned about plastics pollution from sea-based sources, notably the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear. Tens of thousands of fish aggregation devices (FADs) are used by the tuna fishing industry alone; many of them are eventually discarded or lost at sea.

The Commission proposes that all deployed FADs be documented, and that each new FAD from now on be made up of natural fibres and equipped with a tracking device. To discourage their abandonment at sea, the Commission also calls for port disposal programmes that encourage the safe, cost-effective disposal of used fishing gear. The use of natural biodegradable materials in fishing gear should also be promoted.

Proposal 6

Offshore Oil and Gas

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One-third of the oil and one-quarter of the natural gas consumed today comes from underwater areas, and production continues to increase and expand further and deeper offshore and into new regions.

National regulation of offshore oil and gas operations varies greatly from one country to another, and there are no universally agreed standards for drilling operations on the continental shelf. This is problematic as the water column above the outer continental shelf (beyond 200 nautical miles from shore) is part of the high seas and therefore the responsibility of the global community.

Accidents in deep waters are notoriously difficult and expensive to fix, and can cause severe damage to the marine environment. The Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 released nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days before engineers were able to cap the well. As offshore oil and gas operations move deeper and into more extreme environments such as the Arctic, the industry and regulators are and will be confronted by new challenges. International guidelines defining what constitutes an acceptable risk would provide the industry with a standard to meet, regardless of where in the world it was drilling.

The Commission supports the adoption of international binding protocols with safety and environmental standards for offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation on the continental shelf, including provisions for emergency response, and capacity building for developing countries.

In keeping with the polluter-pays principle, the Commission also believes that liability should be recognised and regulated and supports the development of an international liability convention to cover all environmental harm caused by the offshore oil and gas industry.

Proposal 7

Global Ocean Accountability Board

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The Commission calls for the establishment of an independent Global Ocean Accountability Board to benchmark progress – or lack of progress – towards meeting its Proposals for Action and to share this information with the global community and the wider public.

The Board would use clear criteria to measure what has been done and whether it has made a clear difference, as well as holding to account those who are exploiting or mismanaging the high seas.

To enhance transparency and accountability, the Board should reach out to all relevant stakeholders: governments; academia; scientists; the private sector; multilateral development banks and the financial sector; Multilateral Environmental Agreements; the UN; RFMOs; other relevant intergovernmental fora; civil society organisations, including NGOs, organised labour; religious leaders; etc.

Proposal 8

Creating a High Seas Regeneration Zone

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The Commission recognises that continued scientific findings are necessary to evaluate the cumulative impacts of human activities on the high seas so that informed decisions can be made about reversing the degradation of the global ocean. This said, the precautionary principle tells us that a lack of scientific information cannot be a reason for inaction by the international community if we are to ensure the health of the global ocean.

We are convinced that our proposals, if implemented, would reverse the cycle of degradation. But there is a long history of good proposals not being implemented. If this happens, and the result is the continued decline of the high seas, it will impact the whole ocean and people and systems across the planet because of the specific regenerative capacity of the high seas.

We are 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, say, five years or similarly short period of time, 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 regeneration zone where industrial fishing is prevented. Such action would need to take account of RFMO functions within EEZs; and would need to include provision for the ban to be lifted as effective proposals for resource management are put in place for the conservation and management of living resources in the respective areas. The objective of this trigger mechanism and the associated regeneration zone concept is to make fish stocks sustainable for present and future generations, and to replenish ocean life equitably to secure the wellbeing of this global commons for the health of the planet, its people and its biodiversity.

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In the Headlines

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