From the polar seas to the underwater abyss to the wide-open sweep of the Pacific, the global ocean is vital for life on Earth. It provides food for more than three billion people; it produces about half of the oxygen that we breathe, and absorbs roughly a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions. It is set to become a major source of minerals and genetic resources to meet the growing needs of the 21st Century. The water and the seabed are home to an estimated two million species1 – perhaps more – although we have so far identified only one tenth of that number.
In recent years, it has become clear that we are not managing the ocean as effectively as we could. Many fish stocks are depleted; some may never recover. The rich biodiversity that scientists are only now discovering is threatened by destructive fishing methods, pollution and climate change. Illegal fishing vessels are an increasing threat to the security of nations and a commonplace scene of human rights abuses. Equally clear are the economic losses that poor management incurs, with depletion of fish stocks alone costing the global economy an estimated $50bn per year2.
About one third of the global ocean is controlled and managed by individual governments. But threats and challenges are becoming increasingly serious in the high seas, the international waters that lie beyond national jurisdiction. The high seas make up nearly half of the Earth’s surface. Yet there is little monitoring and little policing for this vast area of the planet. Most fundamentally, the high seas sit under a legal system that that has not evolved in response to modern practices, technologies or scientific understanding.
With the global population set to increase from seven towards nine billion people in the next few decades, the need to secure a healthy and productive global ocean could not be more pressing. A healthier ocean that is better managed could provide more food and more employment. Combatting illegal fishing would improve prospects for nature, for the ecosystem services that we need, and for responsible businesses. It could also ensure that the benefits from the exploitation of ocean resources can be sustainably managed and equitably shared.
These issues are not unfamiliar to the international community. At successive meetings within the United Nations system, most recently the Rio+20 summit, governments continue to raise issues of concern, including the threats from climate change and ocean acidification, overfishing, illegal fishing, and subsidies that drive unsustainable consumption. They have also debated the need to conserve and protect marine ecosystems to both restock the ocean and build its resilience to change. Regional fisheries organisations continue to discuss the difficult issue of sustainable high seas fishing and the persistence of illegal fishing; security agencies raise the links between illegal fishing and issues such as piracy, terrorism and drug smuggling. But so far, making the transition towards securing a healthier and more productive global ocean has proven to be a challenge.
Scabbard fish live at depths of between 180 and 1,700m in the ocean (Paul Tyler, University of Southampton)