Some options for change

Biodiversity and habitat protection

An established response to threatened nature is to protect it. Whereas more than 12% of the Earth’s land surface is protected, the figure for the global ocean is about 2.3%1 – and only a small proportion is on the high seas2,3. Although marine protected areas (MPAs) in the ocean are currently increasing, only a small fraction are true marine reserves, where no extractive or polluting activities are allowed.

A growing community of scientists, advocates, and officials now agree that the high seas require a network of fully protected large-scale, no-take marine reserves that are off-limits to exploitation, where ocean life can recover and thrive.

At the 2010 UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan, the international community agreed to protect 10% of the oceans by 20204. They also agreed to identify Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs)5 in ocean beyond national jurisdiction. However, no legal mechanism currently exists for establishing high seas marine reserves. In most regions, there is a plethora of organisations with overlapping competencies and mandates – but none with overall responsibility for creating reserves or conserving biodiversity generally.

Remedying this situation would be a major step towards establishing a network of ecologically significant reserves to help safeguard ocean life against present and future challenges.

Subsidies reform

Some subsidies for fishing may contribute to local catches and local employment. But on a wider scale, they have the opposite effect. When the global fleet is already larger than ocean life can support, pumping money into increasing high seas fishing helps drive stocks to even lower levels, and hence acts as a curb on employment.

Many governments realise this; yet national or local political considerations mean that the subsidies endure. This is despite international calls such as the Rio+20 summit declaration6, which said that countries should in principle ‘eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing’.

Following the call by world leaders, reforming high seas fishing subsidies for the high seas could be an effective way of reducing fishing pressure and helping the conservation of biodiversity. Directing some of the saved money into conservation and management could result in economic benefits – potentially returning $50bn to the global economy each year.

Policing and enforcement

International fisheries crime is flourishing for several principal reasons:

  • flag States often do not fulfil their legal obligations to control the fishing operations of their vessels or the companies or individuals that own them, even though those obligations are spelled out in UNCLOS
  • port States often do not have the capacity to screen vessels for their legality, or to stop illegal vessels from using their ports
  • the risk of being caught is relatively low compared with the rewards for success
  • often, IUU fishing is not treated as an international crime alongside practices such as drug smuggling.

Some Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) have set up ‘blacklists’ to identify and bar vessels that have broken the rules. But these vessels can easily move to another area of the ocean and continue fishing, change their names and flags, or fish in an area of the high seas where there is no RFMO and no regulation. Their positions and movements cannot be traced through AIS/VMS systems or any other method.

Designing and implementing a cost-effective system to combat IUU fishing and close down avenues whereby IUU-caught fish get to market would be a valuable measure for conservation, human rights and the rule of law.

Evolving governance

All legal instruments, governance and regulatory regimes need to evolve in response to knowledge and events if they are to remain relevant and effective. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in 1982; since then, advances in technology together with industry expansion have outpaced the development of effective law, regulation and management, compromising equity, sustainability and conservation.

Evolving ocean governance to meet 21st Century challenges is essential if the global ocean’s health and resilience are to be restored and maintained.

From the Aichi Targets: intergovernmental agreement on marine biodiversity

  • By 2020 all fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably… and the impacts of fisheries on stocks, species and ecosystems are within safe ecological limits… (Target 6)
  • By 2015, the multiple anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs, and other vulnerable ecosystems impacted by climate change or ocean acidification are minimised… (Target 10)
  • By 2020, at least… 10% of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures… (Target 11)

Source: UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Japan, 20107

Sargasso Sea – a possible high seas MPA (Sargasso Sea Alliance)

OSPAR, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, recently declared Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around several high seas features such as seamounts and fracture zones, aimed principally at protecting biodiversity. While OSPAR can regulate many human activities, it does not have a legal mandate to regulate fisheries; that is the domain of RFMOs in the area. The declaration of an MPA could also potentially affect shipping, seabed exploration and management of marine mammals; hence, when it comes to managing these MPAs, the bodies regulating these activities have to be consulted too. Some of the seamounts lie partly within the continental shelf extensions of countries, which must also be reflected during designation and management phases. As a result, at least seven entities need to be involved in these discussions:

  • North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC)
  • International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)
  • North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO)
  • International Whaling Commission (IWC)
  • International Maritime Organization (IMO)
  • International Seabed Authority (ISA)

…and none of them has overall responsibility for protecting biodiversity in the area.