High Seas: Few Rules, Fewer Sheriffs

Our current system of managing the waters that cover almost half our planet does little to ensure the long-term survival of marine ecosystems.
The Atlantic Ocean in the early half of last century; fish that had been trawled from the bottom of the Baltic Sea, 2011.

From left: Detroit Photographic Company/Library of Congress; Ville Palonen/Alamy Stock Photo

What makes the high seas “high?” Legally, the sea becomes “high” when you sail beyond the waters under the control of a nation-state, about 200 miles from the coastline. Informally, the high seas, an area covering nearly half the planet, are a place of loose regulation and lax enforcement—the aquatic equivalent of the Wild West.

That is, perhaps, overstating the lawlessness of the open ocean, but only slightly. The 17th-century concept of “freedom of the seas” has been somewhat circumscribed by a series of treaties developed in the 20th-century that establish different rules and standards for different human activities on the high seas. These rules now form an inconsistent and outdated legal patchwork that leaves the long-term survival of marine ecosystems in the balance.

This map (below) shows which organizations have some kind of governance authority and in what areas of the high seas.

The Pew Charitable Trusts

Notice where two, or even three, organizations share authority for the same spot in the ocean. The area directly south of Africa, for example, is within the jurisdiction of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organization, and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, in addition to the global bodies that control shipping in the region (the International Maritime Organization), seabed mining (International Seabed Authority), and various other treaties (e.g., the Convention on Migratory Species). Each of these agreements and organizations have different standards and requirements governing human activity, and there is little or no cooperation between them. This uncoordinated governance is not a good thing—and not just because there can be a conflict of authority. To draw a comparison, think of what could happen if there are eight doctors treating the same patient without talking to one another.

Enforcement is another issue. Take illegal fishing. Although there are 17 regional fishery management organizations and several treaties governing fishing, approximately 20 percent of fish are still caught unlawfully worldwide, which means the vessel lacks authority to fish, the species is being fished beyond legal limits, or it’s protected and shouldn’t be harvested at all. Illegal fishing costs the global economy $23 billion annually, and illegal fishing operations rob subsistence and small-scale fishing communities of their livelihoods. The black market associated with illegally caught fish is also tied into other trafficking networks, like narcotics, slave labor, and weapons smuggling.

Even legal fishing operations are depleting the ocean’s resources far too quickly. Thirty-three percent of popular commercial species are being overfished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Overall, one-third of the world’s fish stocks are being fished unsustainably, and another 60 percent are fished at the maximum sustainable level. Some populations are at alarmingly low levels. Recent assessments estimated that Pacific bluefin tuna are at just 3.3 percent of their original abundance, and New England cod are below 10 percent of their historic levels.

It should go without saying that the ocean is more than a fish farm. Our oceans are a priceless repository of biodiversity. The high seas account for about two-thirds of the world’s oceans and 95 percent of the planet’s occupied habitat. Altogether, nearly one-third of the world’s phyla live exclusively in marine environments. That treasure trove of life is being degraded without most of us even noticing. Worldwide, 2,332 species of fish and nearly a third of shark and ray species were deemed at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2018.

Our oceans are also not a garbage dump, although that’s how we currently treat them. Every year, between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic trash flows into the sea, and that number is rising. The ocean is also the last stop for much of our carbon pollution. The sea absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the resulting acidification threatens marine life up and down the food chain.

The North Sea phytoplankton bloom seen from space (left); a microscopic view of phytoplankton.

Left photo: NASA

Also, do you like oxygen? Phytokplankton—tiny plants floating near the surface of the ocean—produce around half of the oxygen we breathe. Does it make sense for the source of every other breath to exist in an ill-governed part of the world?

Speaking of breath, take a deep one. There’s hope. In September 2018, 71 countries and more than 40 NGOs, including NRDC, engaged in the first round of negotiations over a potentially ocean-changing international treaty at the United Nations. A host of important decisions will be made by national representatives over the course of four sessions, the last of which will take place in 2020. The establishment of fully protected Marine Protected Areas, where ocean life can find shelter from industrial activity, is at the top of the agenda, along with stronger controls on harmful human activities outside protected areas.

A positive outcome is not guaranteed. Several powerful nations have an interest in maintaining the status quo, under which they are free to exploit the high seas with little accountability. Some wish to see key industries like fishing exempted from the new agreement’s conservation provisions.

But for all the forces in favor of keeping the status quo, there are even more countries stepping up and calling for strong conservation protections in the treaty. They recognize the critical role the ocean plays in their economic, environmental, and social well-being—as well as their food security—and will be working hard over the next two years to secure a strong treaty.

“Governments at the United Nations have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put in place environmental safeguards for half the planet,” says Lisa Speer, director of NRDC’s international oceans program.

With half the planet at stake, a treaty to protect the high seas can’t come soon enough.

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