Taming the high seas

Author: Angela Pauly
Date: February 15, 2013



“The high seas” – Just the term evokes the idea of a wild and lawless ocean that spans as far as the eye can see… and pirates (or is that just me?).   

The truth is not so far from this. You see, the high-seas fall beyond national jurisdiction and are “governed” by a series of international conventions, most important of which is the United Nation’s Law of the Sea (which has not even been ratified by all countries, including the United States). We use the term governed lightly, because the reality is that there is little enforcement taking place, overfishing is rampant and swaths of vital habitats and biodiversity are being lost – some before they have even had a chance to be discovered.

The Global Ocean Commission, which brings together experts and leaders from around the globe, launched this week to influence UN efforts to “sheriff” these waters, citing the objective to: “formulate politically and technically feasible short-, medium- and long-term recommendations to address four key issues facing the high seas:

  • overfishing
  • large-scale loss of habitat and biodiversity
  • the lack of effective management and enforcement
  • deficiencies in high seas governance.”

Former British Foreign Secretary and now one of the chairs of the Commission, David Milibrand, highlighted the problem in an interview with the UK’s Observer newspaper:

“The U.N. Law of the Sea was a great achievement, but we need a new governance framework for today’s global ocean. […] The worst of the current system is plunder and pillage on a massive scale. It is the ecological equivalent of the financial crisis. The long-term costs of the mismanagement of our oceans are at least as great as long-term costs of the mismanagement of the financial system. We are living as if there are three or four planets instead of one, and you can't get away with that." 

Our Executive Director, Xavier Pastor, was in London to attend the launch this week and has this to add:

“Reigning in the high seas is a tough challenge, it is hard enough pushing for sustainable fishing and the rebuilding of habitats at a national level, but once you venture into the high seas it’s a completely different scale.  This Commission may just be what we need to re-engage the world into taking action. There are now over 7 billion people on this planet, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the bounty of the world’s oceans is protected and restored for generations to come.”