World Ocean Forum
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World Ocean Forum

Protect the whole global ocean? How?

What we would gain if the entire ocean were protected

by Deborah Rowan Wright for the World Ocean Forum
Part Two of a Three-Part Series

“Protect it all? All of the sea, all of the ocean? Everywhere in the world? That isn’t possible.”


This is a fair response when I propose we should be safeguarding all of the sea from harm and not just bits of it in specially designated areas. And I wouldn’t propose such an ambitious, and some say idealistic solution to so vast a problem as protecting the sea from ecological downfall if it weren’t for one crucial and perhaps surprising truth — that all the world’s coasts, seas and oceans, and their wildlife are already protected by international law.

A range of protections are provided by several international agreements, including the UN Fish Stocks Agreement; the Convention on Biodiversity; the UN World Charter for Nature; the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; the International Whaling Commission; the Antarctic Treaty; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); and most notably by articles 61;117–120; 192–216; 242–244 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). (The USA signed the agreement, hasn’t ratified the treaty, but follows it as customary international law).

Are you confused? Wondering, if that’s the case, how come the oceans are in such as bad way? The answer is depressingly simple: a law which isn’t implemented or enforced is tantamount to having no law. By ignoring elements of treaties agreed to safeguard the sea, the international community has precipitated the daunting environmental crisis we now face — when protective laws could have prevented it.

It follows that calling for the entire global ocean to be protected from human-caused harm is nothing more than expecting the international community to act lawfully and obey the agreements signed up to. And there’s nothing idealistic in that.

If international law were put into practice as it should be, all sea-using industries would have to operate in non-destructive and responsible ways. Today’s technologies and scientific and technical expertise make law enforcement achievable across the globe, even in the remotest seas — providing the political will is there to make it happen.


What would we gain with all the ocean protected?

When I unravel the reasoning and anticipate this ideal future for the sea, all the advantages lie spread before me like parts of a dismantled clock.
There are obvious gains for nature: diminished pollution, cleaner seas, coral reefs and mangrove forests safeguarded, undersea habitats recovering, and wildlife populations rebuilding. They are the same gains that have been documented in hundreds of marine protected areas, but on a global scale. Less apparent is the sea’s potential to mitigate the effects of climate change. Robust and resilient oceans can absorb more heat and CO2 emissions, and are better able to confront the effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification, than if they are weakened and degraded.

An additional projected advantage is making more of that old favorite — money. The evidence shows that when marine resources are used well, when they are guided by the law of nature and not by the law of the dollar, there are considerable economic returns for individuals, for businesses, communities, and governments. Profits generated from well-managed fisheries, for instance, lift household incomes, and the extra revenue from taxes and exports fills state coffers.

The ecosystem approach is key, not only as a management strategy but for the type of thinking it fosters; a mind-set of participation, of collective responsibility, of cooperation and shared advantage. It is a code of rational behavior on how humans can prosper by working with nature, not against it.

Following from the financial gains come even greater social benefits. With a perpetually regenerating natural resource such as fish in the sea, those who fish for a living (or who work in related industries like processing and retail) have better food security, longer-term employment, and more to spend on housing, education, and health care. This makes millions of people not only better off and better fed, but healthier and happier too.

Mohammad Rakibul Hasan / Coral Reef Image Bank (Ocean Project)

The Law of the Sea: Key Reforms

The broad-brush provisions of the Law of the Sea, such as “States have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment,” presuppose that all the world’s seas and oceans are already meant to be safe from pollution, damaging practices and over-exploitation. The Treaty doesn’t require states to “protect and preserve some of the marine environment,” or to “cooperate on a global basis in formulating rules, standards, and recommended practices for the protection and preservation of parts of the marine environment.”

In a modernized Law of the Sea, the underlying principle of protection should be reasserted, reinforced, and made plain in terms that cannot be disregarded or misinterpreted, meaning the health of the global ocean and its life-supporting systems will take precedence over commercial interests — everywhere.

Specific improvements could include:

1. Establishing a high seas enforcement agency to provide coordinated monitoring and surveillance around the world, with a mandate to board and inspect vessels and withdraw licenses when the law is breached. It could be delivered by an extension of the powers and jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court set up in 1998 by the Rome Statute, making destructive practices criminal acts. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea needs greater powers to take robust action against governments and corporations, and especially against the individuals responsible for ocean-damaging policies and activities (such as allowing land-based industries to pollute the sea, or setting fishing quotas above scientific advice).

2. Amending Article 136, regarding the Common Heritage of Mankind to include not only the seabed but the water above it — in other words all of the high seas (as Arvid Pardo originally proposed in 1967).

3. Revoking the anachronistic article 62 (2), which requires coastal commercial fish stocks to be fished to their maximum capacity (not least because the catch quotas so often exceed scientific advice).

4. Clearly defining standards and rules: for instance, what are the marine pollution standards? What degree of fishing damage to an undersea habitat is acceptable, if any?

5. Re-inventing governance. A modernized Law of the Sea would need a carefully-planned and forward-looking body to implement a strategy of 100% ocean protection. At present, regarding oceans and conservation, we have a fragmented mosaic of authority made up of disparate bodies functioning independently, typically acting in the interest of industry and not of nature.

Conservation Management Organizations could replace regional fisheries organizations to regulate all activities in a given region, for example, harvesting biological and mineral resources (fishing, aquaculture, mining etc.), generating energy (wind and wave power, etc.) and tackling pollution.

Global ocean waters are divided into two realms: those within coastal states’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones and those beyond, in the high seas. Correspondingly, two areas of law implementation are needed; one run by each coastal state as part of its domestic policy (which parties to the Law of the Sea are already committed to do) and the other to cover activity in the high seas. Therefore there is often a double hurdle of faulty governance to jump. First, few countries are fulfilling their Law of the Sea conservation obligations within their own waters, and second, we’re lacking an effective governing structure to put the law into effect over the rest of the oceans.

Even if creating the perfect method may elude us, it is possible to find a much improved way of controlling human activities in the high seas. A governance approach based on the findings of American economist Elinor Ostrom indicates that a common-purpose, cross-sector, non-hierarchical system would work best — rooted in the ecosystem-based and precautionary approaches and coordinated by a central agency to provide financial, scientific, and technical support for local and regional bodies.

Cinzia Osele Bismarck / Ocean Image Bank

How much would it cost to protect it all?

A new system of governance, enforcement controls, inspectors, patrol boats, satellite tracking etc. sounds expensive. It is difficult to put a price on establishing and maintaining a marine protected area. There are many variables such as location, size, and the level of protection given. Using a combination of sources and allowing for inflation, an aggregated projection puts the annual running cost of protecting 30 percent of the global ocean at between US$20 and $23 billion. Scaling that up would give a yearly figure of between US$67 and $77 billion to safeguard all of it.

If you consider that in 2018 global military spending was US$1.8 trillion (roughly twenty-five times as much) the cost of keeping the world’s oceans safe from harm is a bargain. And most importantly, it would cost much less to prevent a catastrophe in the making than to try and put things right afterward. Besides, much of that figure would be offset by revenue generated from licensing industries and from more plentiful and profitable fisheries. Added to that, hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created: for scientists, administrators, fishers, law enforcers, technicians, and more.

As I understand it, the most pressing risk to the sea and its wildlife — indeed to all of the natural world — is institutional and political inertia. With bold government action and cross- border co-operation all the rest is solvable.

Roughly two-thirds of the world’s population live in a democracy, where we choose who governs us. We make a deal with these people. With our votes we give them a mandate to manage the affairs of state, and with our taxes we pay them to do it. It’s a contract between citizens and state: it’s a job. A significant part of the job is to manage the use of natural resources well; making sure ancient forests are kept standing, rivers are unspoiled, wilderness areas are left alone; safeguarding nature’s life-support systems, which provide us with breathable air, a habitable climate, food security, and a clean water supply. But in scores of cases governments break that contract. It’s all too evident in clear-cut forests, diminishing wildlife populations, and polluted seas. Meanwhile, those in power take their handsome salaries from the public purse for jobs not well done.

More recently, there have been signs of greater government engagement in environmental concerns, which is encouraging, but genuine preventive and restorative action has yet to happen. In the meantime, there is plenty the rest of us can do towards protecting the sea and marine life, which I’ll summarize in the next article.

Part three will be released next week. Part one is available here.

Deborah Rowan Wright is an independent researcher who writes about marine conservation. She has worked with the UK NGOs Whale & Dolphin Conservation, Friends of the Earth, and Marinet. Her work on marine renewable energy, ocean governance reform, and public-trust law has been published by the International Whaling Commission and the Ecologist, among others. In 2020, her book Future Sea: How to Rescue and Protect the World’s Oceans was published by the University of Chicago Press and it is receiving many excellent editorial reviews.

Reprinted with permission from Future Sea: How to Rescue and Protect the World’s Oceans by Deborah Rowan Wright, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by Deborah Rowan Wright. All rights reserved.

To learn more, find Future Sea: How to rescue and protect the world’s oceans wherever you purchase books.

WORLD OCEAN FORUM is dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas and offering a knowledgeable outlet for research, opinion and storytelling. If you have an idea for a solutions-based approach for our ocean future, please contact us.



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