June 8 is International World Oceans Day, a UN observance. In this article, we look at the Law of the Sea, the Exclusive Economic Zone, sustainable practices regarding living aquatic resources, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Future of the Ocean Agenda, overfishing and Fish or Plastic for Lunch?
Scientists estimate more than two million species live in the ocean and we have barely identified 10%. But some of the species we have discovered are proving very useful, including in biomedical research. Human activities have degraded or destroyed the marine ecosystem, jeopardizing the invaluable services it provides. Climate change, marine pollution, overfishing, destruction of marine and coastal habitats, invasive species, oil, and gas extraction—the hazards are extensive. These threats not only rob the ocean of its aesthetic and inspirational value—they directly endanger human survival. There can be no sustainable future without a healthy ocean.
The dark oceans were the womb of life. From the protected oceans, life emerged. We still bear in our bodies—in our blood, in the salty bitterness of our tears—the marks of this remote past.
Ambassador Arvid Pardo, 32nd Session of the UN General Assembly, 1 November 1967
“A Constitution for the Ocean” – The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
“On 10 December 1982, we created a new record in legal history,” exclaimed Tommy Koh, the Singaporean President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in his speech titled “A Constitution for the Ocean.” The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) had just opened for signature and 119 countries signed it on the first day. It took 36 years of negotiations and a “long and arduous journey to secure a new Convention that covers every aspect of the uses and resources of the sea.” UNCLOS, which comprises 18 Parts and deals with a multitude of topics, was “the result of an unprecedented effort at codification and progressive development of international law” (Treves, 2008).
Inadequate management and overfishing in the high seas were already well documented by 1992 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). At the time the FSA agreement was signed, FAO adopted its Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, a landmark document aiming to set international standards for sustainable practices regarding living aquatic resources.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has also established numerous regional fishery bodies (RFBs) as forums for regional cooperation for the conservation and sustainable use of fisheries. RFBs with a management mandate are called Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). Following UNCLOS guidance to “cooperate to establish subregional or regional fisheries organizations” for the conservation and management of living resources in the high sea (UNCLOS Article 118), states created a plethora of such structures. Numerous RFMOs cover geographical areas (e.g. the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, or the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization). Other RFMOs regulate fishing for a particular species: there are five RFMOs on tuna, including the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Future of the Ocean Agenda
In 2015, governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 14 (life below water) is devoted to the ocean. Its targets address marine pollution, ocean acidification, sustainable management of marine and coastal ecosystems, marine protected areas, overfishing, perverse subsidies, and small island development, providing a holistic framework on ocean governance.
Yet, despite the earnest efforts of the international community over the past 50 years, problems persist. Overfishing, resource extraction, tourism, recreation, coastal development, and pollution are damaging habitats and reducing populations of marine species at a frightening rate. Despite the establishment of numerous regional and global instruments to manage fisheries, the state of the world’s ocean and marine resources is much worse. The percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10% in 1974 to 34.2% in 2017 (FAO, 2020). Despite the multitude of governing instruments, the FAO admits these are “not always effectively implemented” (FAO, 2020).
New challenges, including climate change and sea-level rise, plastics and microplastics, anthropogenic underwater noise, ocean warming, and ocean acidification, are more prominent. Plastics and microplastics in the marine environment have increased dramatically and are a serious threat with complex ecotoxicological effects (Avio et al., 2017). Carbon pollution is changing the ocean’s chemistry making it more acidic. Ocean warming and acidification, although different phenomena, interact to the detriment of marine ecosystems, affecting primary productivity, nutrient cycles, and ultimately the survival of marine species. Anthropogenic underwater noise production has serious detrimental effects on ocean biodiversity (Williams et al., 2015).
Multiple stressors and the need to consider cumulative impacts require developing a more holistic approach to ocean governance, carefully based on integrated management and the ecosystem approach. Cumulative impacts cannot be managed in isolation and sectoral management efforts, while valuable for informing decisions, may prove inadequate to address future challenges. The 2030 Agenda provides a robust reference framework, but proper coordination is still lacking.