Saving the ocean: a question of governance

As the UN General Assembly convenes, the crisis in the world's oceans needs urgent action

When the UN General Assembly convenes for the opening of its annual session, high on the agenda will be the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the expanded global development targets that will replace the Millennium Development Goals at the end of this year. The 14th SDG is a pledge to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

This so-called Ocean SDG was urgently needed. The ocean covers four-fifths of our planet and is essential to human survival, yet governance of the seas is currently both confused and ineffective. The many institutions that have come into being in recent decades, to arrest the deterioration of the world’s ocean and restore it to health, have failed.
The multiple crises that assail the ocean today include the  acidification and warming as levels of carbon in the atmosphere continue to rise alarmingly, the loss of biodiversity and the collapse of fish stocks through destructive and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and pollution, for example, from plastic debris.            
The scale of the crisis has been recognised at a global level. In the Rio+20 declaration of 2012, entitled ‘The Future We Want’, UN member States stressed the importance of “the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and seas and of their resources for sustainable development.”  But a report published this month by the London Zoological Society and WWF shows that more than half the world’s vertebrate fish populations have been wiped out since 1970.  Even more disturbing, the populations of the species of fish that feed most coastal consumers have nosedived. “ Humanity is collectively mismanaging the ocean to the brink of collapse,” the report concludes. 

Existing governance arrangements have not only failed to arrest these declines, but have contributed to them, according to From Decline to Recovery, a high level report by the Global Ocean Commission released in June 2014. The report catalogues the accelerating cycle of ocean degradation and points to the fundamental failures of ocean governance, particularly in the high seas, an area that makes up more than 45% of the Earth’s surface. Lack of compliance and poor implementation, limited investment in monitoring and enforcement, ineffective regional cooperation and limited infrastructure are, among others problems the authors insist must be addressed if the ocean and the life within are to be saved.

“The high seas are like a failed state. Poor governance and the absence of policing and management mean valuable resources are unprotected or being squandered”, said David Miliband, co-chair of the Commission and former UK Foreign Secretary. “The high seas belong to us all. We know what needs to be done but we can’t do it alone. A joint mission must be our priority.”

The woeful state of ocean governance is largely a by-product of the key ocean convention – the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, (UNCLOS) which came into force in 1994. Two subsequent implementing agreements, adopted in 1994 and 1995, elaborated provisions on deep-sea mining and migratory fish management. 

UNCLOS is the basic legal framework for ocean governance, but unlike most UN conventions, it lacks a single implementing and monitoring secretariat. Instead, an alphabet soup of global and regional and international bodies deal with different aspects of the ocean, with overlapping or inadequate mandates, poor accountability and an inconsistency of regulation and enforcement that allows States to pick and choose what they comply with, safe in the realisation that it is unlikely they will be held to account. 
A key problem is that governance in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including the high seas, is organised around distinct sectoral activities, regulating activities such as fisheries, shipping and seabed mining.  The marine environment is a connected entity , and each activity impacts the whole, but ocean governance is fragmented, and the conservation of species, habitats and ecosystems slips through the many cracks between separate regimes. Few mechanisms exist even to assess, let alone manage, the cumulative effects on the ocean of multiple industrial activities, ocean acidification or warming. 
In high seas fishing, for example, lack of cooperation between governments , conflicting interests, lack of political will, lack of enforcement and perverse economic incentives for ‘free riders’ to cheat the system have created multiple crises for global fish stocks.
China’s rise
The GOC argues strongly for a fresh start in global ocean governance, in order to take account of new realities of ocean use, including the rise of China as a major maritime and fishing power, and to defend the proposition that the ocean is a global public good that the international community has a collective obligation to protect. 
There are, however, a number of obstacles to reform: UNCLOS was long in negotiation, representing as it does a careful balance of competing jurisdictions and uses, including military uses. Many fear that it might unravel in any attempt at reform. China, the world’s largest consumer of fish, and now a major deep sea fishing power, is a party to UNCLOS and has important economic interests in maintaining the health of the ocean. The other major player – the US – is not a party to UNCLOS even though the US Administration recognise that it constitutes international customary law.
China has been the world’s largest fish processing and exporting country since 1990, is the world’s largest consumer of seafood and, with some 2000 fishing vessels, boasts the world’s largest fishing fleet, created in the 1980s with government support.
China fishes abroad
Heavy pollution in China’s coastal marine environment and overfishing of China’s domestic waters has led to a drastic decline of native fisheries resources, which has driven Chinese fleets to ever more distant waters.
The precise volume of the Chinese catch is disputed, but the European Parliament has estimated that between 2000 and 2011, Chinese fishing vessels extracted 4.6 million tons of fish annually, of which 3.1 million tons came from African waters. The same report described the activities of China’s fleet as “undocumented.” 
China’s approach to international fisheries has important international economic, environmental and governance implications. Given the importance of the blue economy to China, the position it takes on reform of a governance system that is failing to ensure sustainability, failing to allocate resources fairly and failing to preserve the potential of the blue economy, will be critical.
Pressure grows
In view of the present governance failures, pressure is growing for a third implementing agreement under UNCLOS, to address marine biodiversity in the high seas. In 2015, the UN General Assembly agreed by consensus to start negotiating in 2016 an implementing agreement on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.
Issues that will be covered in these negotiations include: arrangements to designate, monitor and maintain marine protected areas in the high seas, a mechanism to conduct environmental impact assessments before human activities liable to affect high seas biodiversity can take place, how the benefits resulting from the use of deep sea genetic marine resources (for example in medicines and biotechnology) can be shared among all countries, and capacity building and information exchange.
Last year, China and the US, the world’s biggest marine powers pledged to work together to conserve and protect the ocean, combat global climate change, ocean acidification, unsustainable fishing, marine pollution, and marine litter, and to work towards the establishment of a marine protected area in the Ross Sea in the Antarctic.  But, though such bilateral agreements are welcome, without a wider reform of ocean governance, with agreed goals and stronger coordination, the hard-won Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean will not achieve its ends.