In 1609, Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius published a treatise on international law called Mare Liberum (The Free Sea), which paved the way for global acceptance of the idea that “the sea, since it is as incapable of being seized as the air, cannot be attached to the possession of any particular nation”.
Grotius could never have imagined the global ocean would be anything but a vast expanse of wild water to be traversed for trade. But today, the high seas – defined as areas of ocean beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones of nations with marine borders – are battling pressures from every direction in the form of overfishing, mining, climate change and pollution to the point that they are now in peril.
This degradation and its impact on the future of humanity should not be underestimated. The high seas cover nearly half the world’s surface and are crucial to life as we know it. Why? The ocean creates more than half the planet’s oxygen, drives weather systems and modulates the atmosphere.
The high seas make up 64 per cent of the world’s oceans and are home to some of Earth’s most environmentally important ecosystems. The dark depths of these oceans contain many species that are already playing a vital role in medical breakthroughs, and only about a tenth of the estimated two million species that call the high seas home have been identified. The high seas also provide food for more than three billion people.
According to a recent report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), the cumulative impact of ocean stressors is undermining the ocean’s resilience to dangerous levels.
“The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought,” says IPSO scientific director Professor Alex Rogers. “We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”
The IPSO report was released in October 2013, a week after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that the ocean serves as a buffer for the planet, and protects humanity from severe climatic impacts. In fact, the ocean absorbs about 90 per cent of the heat trapped on Earth from greenhouse gases and 25 per cent of our carbon dioxide emissions.
Says Global Ocean Commission co-chair Trevor Manuel, “If the IPCC report was a wake-up call on climate change, IPSO is a deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global ocean. Make no mistake; unless we restore the ocean’s health, we will experience the consequences on human prosperity, wellbeing and development.”
When an alarm bell rings over a threat to our ecological security, Manuel says governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats.
“In the long run, the impacts are just as important.”
Working for change
With the population set to soar to 9.6 billion by 2050, the Global Ocean Commission advises that the need for a healthy, well-managed global ocean could not be more pressing.
Unfortunately, given that the high seas are in international waters beyond the reach of national laws, they are largely unprotected and ungoverned. With little policing and monitoring, they are vulnerable to exploitation and degradation at the hands of humans with their own wants and needs in mind.
As island nations, Australia and New Zealand are taking a strong stance in working towards a solution on high seas governance. The problem is that all nations have to cast some of their self-interest aside for the common good of the oceans for this to happen.
At a Developments in Global Oceans Governance and Conservation seminar at the University of Sydney this November, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chair Graeme Kelleher said the high seas are subject to the “tragedy of the commons.”
“Avoidance of or recovery from this tragedy is extremely complex because it requires a conscious decision by humans to over-ride their instinctive selfishness and competitiveness. Most humans and groups seem to need to suffer significantly before they will willingly make such a decision,” he says.
Currently, Kelleher says less than one 30,000th of the high seas is in marine protected areas, despite these waters facing escalating pressure from over-fishing, deep seabed mining, ocean acidification, chemical and noise pollution, huge gyres of plastic waste, dead zones, ship traffic and destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling.
Kelleher is an Ocean Elder, a group of high-profile global leaders who have united to try to conserve and protect the ocean and its wildlife.
Ahead of the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries vote on November 3 on whether to ban deep-sea bottom trawling, fellow Ocean Elder Sir Richard Branson called for support for the vote in The Observer: “The deep ocean houses a vast reservoir of biodiversity, an unimaginable wealth of genetic material with the potential to enable breakthroughs in medical and other vital fields … Until a strong deep-sea fishing regulation is implemented, bottom trawlers are free to engage in an unrestricted ‘buffalo hunt’ that every year reduces hundreds of square kilometres of the vibrant sea-floor to barren wastelands, including 4000-year-old corals that have been alive since the pyramids were built.”
While the EU fisheries committee did vote to ban fishing of deep-sea stocks in vulnerable areas, it did not back a blanket ban on deep-sea bottom trawling, pending a four-year evaluation.
This decision is typical of other moves to more effectively govern international waters. Robert Hill, adjunct professor of sustainability at the University of Sydney and commissioner with the Global Oceans Commission, says the high seas are governed by a patchwork of rules and regulations with separate organisations managing seabed mining and dumping, fishery agreements and rules for navigation and shipping. But there are many patches missing and changes to international governance arrangements are still a way off.
None of these organisations has overall responsibility for conserving nature, says Hill, and in most of the high seas there is no clear legal mechanism for establishing protected areas.
“If you go back half a century, this wasn’t too much of a problem because we didn’t really use the high seas, but increasing demand for resources such as fish and our increasing technological capacity to catch them in industrial quantities have changed that paradigm; high seas biodiversity is now absolutely a major issue.”
It is widely agreed that the only way for ocean life to recover and thrive is to create a network of fully protected, large-scale marine reserves that are off limits to exploitation.
In 2010, the international community agreed to protect 10 per cent of the oceans by 2020 but no legal mechanism so far exists to establish high seas marine reserves.
Australia and New Zealand are supporting United Nations discussions over whether to implement a new international instrument to protect and conserve marine biodiversity in the high seas, but a decision is unlikely to be made before 2015.
Groups such as the High Seas Alliance, made up of 27 NGOs and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, are pushing for the UN to adopt legal measures to protect the high seas, a commitment made at 2012’s Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
But as Sofia Tsenikli of High Seas Alliance member Greenpeace International says, “The ocean’s clock is ticking, we hope countries stop dragging their feet at the next round of talks and finally give the go-ahead they should have done at Rio last year for a new agreement to protect high seas marine life, which we all depend on to survive.”
Threats to the high seas
Climate change: Rising sea temperatures and acidification is making the ocean unlivable for many species. Ecosystems are being irreversibly damaged to the detriment of biodiversity and fish stocks.
Overfishing: Around 9000-10,000 tonnes of fish and invertebrates are taken from the ocean every hour. Methods such as bottom trawling and nets of increasing size and sophistication have disastrous consequences on the fish targeted and inadvertently, all other marine life. Overfishing has reduced many stocks of large fish by 90 per cent.
Pollution: Sewage, pesticides, plastics and petroleum are dumped into the sea or make their way into the sea through rivers and air currents. Dead zones are being created through
resulting oxygen depletion.
Mining: As near-shore deposits of oil and gas run low, companies are venturing into deeper waters, causing oil spills and release of hydrocarbons and other contaminants into the ocean. Mineral exploration of deep sea beds is also underway.