5 Apr 2016

Beware the monster rising from the deep

Last week, I attended a few sessions of a conference on oceans governance, which was -- among other things -- discussing the "Global Governance Reform Initiative, an ambitious project which seeks to overcome the challenges and deadlocks of global governance by improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and legitimacy of collective actions undertaken by an inclusive set of all relevant stakeholders."

The topics that attracted my interest were plastic pollution and high-seas fisheries depletion,* which pollute and deplete the commons, respectively. These problems are perhaps growing due to a lack of progress in tackling their underlying causes. In the case of plastic pollution, you have most countries (many of them rich) uninterested in preventing pollution via, say, taxes on plastic bags (Yes, in the NL but not in the US). In the case of fisheries, you have EU, Asian and other fleets in a race to catch fish using fair means and foul.

I came to the conference still thinking of a rising sea that will combine with more erratic weather to batter our coasts and cities (how about 4m of sea level rise in 3-4 years?) in a "process" that is more likely to resemble an angry tsunami than gradual lapping at our toes.

Thanks for the invite. Am I late for the party?
The discussions of plastic and fish diverted me from water volumes to water quality, i.e., the way that plastic interferes with the food chain and over-fishing directly cuts it into pieces (e.g., shark finning, tuna depletion, and so on). To these factors, we also need to add the impacts of ocean acidification and coastal pollution on the reefs that host the majority of the ocean's biological activity.

Taken together, these factors add up to an historical assault on "the vast seas" that may not actually be able to absorb and diffuse the damages, which means -- in an abuse of metaphors -- that we are awakening a monster that will not only flood our shores, but also poison our food supplies.

What frustrated me about the conference was the combination of limited knowledge and business-as-usual inaction. I asked a member of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs if the Dutch government would be willing to propose a reform of the EU's Common Fisheries' Policy, which consistently issues fishing permits in excess of biological capacity. He said "I don't really know about that, but you can ask my boss tomorrow." At another moment, I was sad to hear Paul Holthaus of the World Ocean Council ("an unprecedented international, cross-sectoral industry leadership alliance on Corporate Ocean Responsibility" [sic]) speak in support of a "healthy and productive global ocean and its sustainable use, development and stewardship by a responsible ocean business community."

Hello? HELLO! Did I just hear four speakers in a row talk about unprecedented ocean stress as a result of this "community stewardship"?

I had to slap myself a few times:
What would I do to address over-fishing and plastic pollution? I suggest "closing the commons" of the world's oceans, i.e., banning fishing beyond countries' 200 mile EEZs and requiring that coastal states end pollution emissions leaving their waters. Such a closure (turning the high-seas into marine protected areas) would require money, but probably not much, as technology would make it easy to detect transgressions and a few ship seizures (and auctions) would simultaneously reduce incursions and generate revenue to ongoing policing.*** The closing of the commons would ALSO make it easier and more profitable for nations to profit from the sustainable use of their near-shore resources, unlike the depredations that take place today as Chinese, Spanish and other-flagged vessels "accidentally" plunder fish and resources belonging to some of the world's poorest countries.

Bottom Line The oceans are out-of-sight, out-of-mind for most people (even most Dutch), but their vastness means that small changes can have crushing impacts on humanity (through changes in biological productivity, sea level, storms, and so on). As I said at the conference, it's time for a REVOLUTION in #oceansgovernance, not "reform."

* Other topics -- tackling Somali pirates and growing naval competition -- were, respectively, cute ("oh look, we can unite against desperate people without a government to defend their theft") and never-ending ("let's wave our erect naval powers in front of everyone!")
** I've not heard back from @WorldOceanCounc
*** And maybe jobs for ex-Somali pirates!


  1. I am happy to see that you also mentioned ocean acidification. It is ignored far too often. SLR and over-fishing are so much easier to visualize.

  2. Challenges to the purported ambition for inclusive stakeholder representation... This details the exhausting blocking tactics of industry members such as the speaker from ISSF on effective oceans governance reform https://t.co/bEzsQHDMTB. At the same time countries met at the UN for the first time to negotiate the fate of the global commons under a new internationally legally binding agreement for the governance of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. See my introductory summary with colleagues here: https://theconversation.com/new-laws-for-the-high-seas-four-key-issues-the-un-talks-need-to-tackle-56298. David can I clarify your suggestion for the global commons " i.e., banning fishing beyond countries' 200 mile EEZs and requiring that coastal states end pollution emissions leaving their waters" in .."ending pollution emissions leaving their waters" ...are you referring just to fishing vessels or shipping more broadly or an even broader scope for emissions to include effluent and plastic waste? Thanks Genevieve


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