Take back the ocean

Earlier this summer, the United Nations convened its Ocean Conference (ONUC) in Lisbon, Portugal. The goal was to “propel innovative science-based solutions needed to open a new chapter in global ocean action.” The world needs a “sustainably managed ocean”, according to UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel de Serpa Soares, who hailed the conference as a “huge success”. If only.
The importance of the ocean cannot be overstated. It is the largest biosphere on the planet, home to up to 80% of all life on earth. It generates 50% of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions, essential for climate and weather regulation. And it’s also economically vital, with around 120 million people employed in fishing and related activities, mostly for small businesses in developing countries.
Yet, over the past four decades, the ocean has come under unprecedented pressure, largely due to the rapid growth of commercial maritime activity. This growth is particularly significant in the exclusive economic zones, contiguous areas of territorial waters that extend some 230 miles from the country’s coastline.
The principle of national sovereignty over EEZs was enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. In the years that followed, governments sold off vast tracts of ocean territory through licensing and concessions, thus handing over the management of marine ecosystems to the private sector.
Politicians apparently felt that companies would have a financial incentive to adopt responsible business practices in order to preserve the resources from which they derived so much value. Instead, widespread oil and gas exploration, industrial fishing and frenetic maritime trade have, as UN Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson recently put it, caused “the health of the ocean” to “decline in a spiral”.
Marine acidification and warming reached record levels last year. Only about 13% of the ocean now qualifies as “marine wilderness” (biologically and ecologically intact seascapes, mostly free from human disturbance). More than a third of marine mammals and nearly a third of reef-forming corals are now threatened with extinction.
It is in this context that ONUC was convened to “halt the destruction” of ocean ecosystems. But, despite much rhetoric, only vague declarations resulted: the 193 UN Member States reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening maritime governance by (among other things) strengthening data collection and promoting the financing nature-based solutions.
In fact, beyond Colombia’s recently announced plans to create four new marine protected areas, no binding commitments have been made. And, tellingly, the deadlock over deep-sea mining has not been resolved. While many advanced economies, including Japan and South Korea, support the controversial practice, Pacific countries like Palau and Fiji have demanded an industry-wide moratorium, citing lack of environmental data.
The key takeaway from the conference is that the UN remains committed to incremental change, with the private sector firmly in the driver’s seat. This is reflected in the emphasis on “natural capital” solutions, which consist in putting a price on nature in order to save it. The neoliberal policy-making that created the current crisis has undergone an ideological metamorphosis. Where shareholder capitalism has failed to provide self-regulation for private owners, “shareholder capitalism” will succeed, as corporations balance the competing interests of investors, workers, communities and the environment.
It’s not hard to see why stakeholder capitalism is so appealing: it makes it look like we can have our cake and eat it. But, as far as the ocean is concerned, the cake is already past its best before date. Given current technological constraints, protecting the ocean from further degradation precludes any further maritime industrialization.
Why does the UN – or anyone for that matter – believe that private corporations will become responsible stewards of the planet? The rapid degradation of marine ecosystems isn’t exactly new news, but corporations have only increased their damaging activities. Realistically, stakeholder capitalism will only defer to future generations the tough decisions about maximizing profit in a climate-constrained world.
Today, the world has the opportunity to take a more promising approach to protecting the ocean: the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. The meetings, which resume in New York this week, are expected to produce a legal framework to govern all marine areas beyond the EEZs of coastal countries.
The high seas represent 64% of the surface of the oceans and are home to the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on Earth. The number of species they harbor is enormous, and many more are expected to be discovered. And they’re getting busier — and more threatened — by the day.
Protection of the high seas has long been overseen by a patchwork of international agencies. As a result, only 1.2% of this fragile ecosystem is currently protected from exploitative commercial activities.

About Lucille Thompson

Check Also

This fragrant rose garden in France is now at the heart of the world of Dior skincare

Head to Granville in northern France and you’ll find Dior’s latest launch: the Dior Rose …