Below is a guest post by Alexandra Kerr, program coordinator in the International Institutions and Global Governance Program.
There is no marvel that rivals the ocean or the life teaming within its blue walls. But more importantly, the ocean has no equal in the function that it plays in sustaining life on this planet. It cleans our air, provides us with sustenance, energy, and jobs, and determines our weather. Yet “it is a curious situation,” observed environmentalism pioneer Rachel Carson in 1960, “that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life.” Climate change, unbridled pollution, and egregious exploitation are causing oceans to warm and acidify, generating enormous dead zones and trash gyres, and depleting fishing stocks. But the ocean, continued Carson, “though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself."
These topics were front and center at the June 16-17 ‘Our Ocean’ summit hosted by the State Department. Spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry, the summit gathered heads of state, government officials, NGO and non-profit leaders, scientists, and business people from eighty countries. The actor Leonardo DiCaprio even showed up, despite inevitable references to the movie Titanic. Beyond sounding the alarm, the conference sought innovative approaches at the global, regional, and domestic level to three critical challenges: countering ocean acidification, ending marine pollution, and ensuring sustainable fisheries.
Ocean acidification: Over half of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the Earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been absorbed by the ocean. As CO2 dissolves, carbonic acid is formed, changing the ocean’s acidity. The result is dire on two fronts. Increased CO2 concentrations diminish the ocean’s capacity to act as a carbon sink, aggravating global warming, while rising acidity threatens shell-forming animals, including coral. The first step towards better mitigation and adaptation strategies is to better monitor acidification trends, so that impact and response models can be developed. Accordingly, Secretary Kerry endorsed swift further development of the Global Oceans Acidification Observing Network. First proposed during the Rio+20 Meetings in 2012, the institution’s International Coordination Centre is housed under the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Marine pollution: Some 80 percent of ocean pollution comes from the land, in forms ranging from pesticides, sewage, and pharmaceuticals to fishing nets and plastics. Among the most urgent problems in coastal zones is nutrient pollution caused by runoff from coastal cities and farms. By reducing oxygen concentrations, it has generated 600 marine dead zones, in which sea life cannot thrive. Meanwhile, marine debris, predominantly in the form of plastics, has generated giant trash gyres, the most infamous of which—the Great Pacific Trash Vortex—sprawls across an area the size of Texas. Alas, current multilateral mechanisms to address ocean pollution—including the 1995 Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, and the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships—are woefully inadequate. Summit speakers highlighted the need to devise better systems to monitor and determine sources of pollution, as well as manage and recover debris.
Sustainable fisheries: Each coastal state has legal jurisdiction over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles from shore. Beyond that point, the ocean is a global common, free for use by all countries, and vital to international shipping commerce. But freedom on the high seas is a double-edged sword, leaving it wide open to unregulated and devastating overfishing. While several international initiatives attempt to address the problem—including the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement, which seeks to preserve highly migratory and straddling fish populations, and the Port State Measures, which aim to prevent, deter, and eliminate illegal, unreported, and unregulated Fishing (IUU)—these mechanisms remain weak and rife with gaps. The summit encouraged multilateral action to end overfishing, eliminate harmful subsidies for national fishing industries, create market incentives for sustainable fishing practices, and to stop illegal seafood from entering domestic markets, including in the United States. The summit’s Action Plan called on all nations to “end overfishing on all marine fish stocks by 2020,” an appeal bolstered by President Obama’s executive order to implement a U.S. framework to combat IUU fishing, and to prevent seafood fraud.
Implementing these initiatives would help improve the current state of oceans governance, which DiCaprio aptly described as “the Wild West on the high seas.” But Secretary Kerry strongly emphasized need for a more comprehensive global oceans strategy that could link the efforts of governments, industries, organizations, and scientists.
In the immediate term, there are helpful steps national governments can take to improve the health of the oceans. One, as Secretary Kerry emphasized, is to meet the target set out in the Convention on Biological Diversity, which calls on states to increase marine and coastal reserve areas to 10 percent of the ocean—up from less than 2 percent today. President Obama did his part Tuesday, June 17, when he announced his intension to expand the 87,000 square mile Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, one of four marine sanctuaries created by George W. Bush. The result would be the largest marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean, home to twenty-two protected marine mammal species. Also at the conference, President Tong of Kiribati declared a ban on all commercial fishing after January 1, 2015, in the Phoenix Islands Marine Protected Area, a reserve roughly the size of California.
The summit represented another commendable step in the Obama administration’s efforts to address the Oceans crisis, which began with the formulation of a National Ocean Policy early in the President’s first term. Yet, there is still much work to be done at home. The United States ranks 75th in the world on the 2013 Ocean Health Index—which measures how well 171 countries and territories are managing the marine ecosystems in their EEZs by analyzing indicators of responsible ocean stewardship. Equally worrisome, the United States has still not joined the foundational treaty governing the ocean, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
While the United States took a leading role in creating UNCLOS, it is not one of the 165 countries that have ratified the treaty. At the Economist World Oceans Summit in February, Secretary Kerry criticized the U.S. Senate for inaction—while adding that the United States is nonetheless “committed to living by the law of the sea even though it isn’t ratified.” But there is no substitute for ratification, which would benefit the United States for a host of reasons, both practical and symbolic. One of the most important is the signal it would send to the rest of the world. In his May speech at West Point, President Obama once again called for Senate action on UNCLOS. “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example,” he explained, “we can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else.”
Preventing the continued destruction of three quarters of our planet will require inspired U.S. leadership of the sort that was on display last week in Washington. The health of the ocean is essential for the survival not only of sea life, but of human life. As oceanographer Jacques Cousteau warned in 1981, "[the ocean] is man’s only hope. …we are all in the same boat."