(JG Graphics/Modina Rimolfa)

Commentary: Time to Start Caring About the Crisis Unfolding Beyond Regional Waters


JANUARY 18, 2015

Beyond the waters that every country has the right to exploit and control are vast oceans that are crucially important for all of us: they generate most of the earth’s oxygen; provide food, water and life-saving medicine, even ingredients for beauty products; and provide for recreational areas and inspiration.

Our oceans regulate the climate that nurtures life, and are home to the region’s coral reefs. The highly popular tuna and other highly migratory species swim these oceans and the territorial waters of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

But today, the world’s oceans are threatened by overfishing, use of destructive fishing practices, deep-sea mining, bioprospecting (or the search for plants, animals and microorganisms from which medicinal drugs and other commercially valuable compounds can be obtained), pollution, siltation, warming waters, coral bleaching, and other impacts from climate change.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, around 80 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited or significantly depleted. Some species have already been fished to commercial extinction, with 90 percent of the top predators already wiped out from the oceans’ ecosystems. The World Bank estimates the lost economic benefits due to overfishing at $50 billion annually. The value of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) on the other hand is currently estimated to amount to between $10 billion and $23.5 billion per year.

Still, industrial fishing is expanding into deeper and more remote areas for short-term profit. The deep sea also is being threatened by the search for new sources of oil, gas, metals, other precious materials and commercially useful genetic resources. Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change are causing “dead zones” in the oceans, higher temperatures and acidification.

For the people of Southeast Asia, this crisis manifests itself in the form of declining fish catches, dying coral reefs, worsening poverty and missed opportunities to access and benefit from the richness and diversity of life and resources in regional waters.

Against this background, one would think that there is a clear cause for protecting large areas of our oceans to secure our own future. Yet less than 3 percent of the world’s oceans have some form of protection in place. More appallingly, only 1 percent of the high seas is protected. Clearly, a global response is needed to find solutions for this alarming situation.

From Tuesday till Friday, governments from all over the world will come together in New York to talk about this crisis of the oceans and debate the scope and feasibility of a new implementing agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

The UNCLOS is widely regarded as the constitution of the world’s oceans. If most governments recommend this agreement, then a decision will be made in September at the General Assembly of the United Nations to launch a formal negotiation that will elaborate on the contents of the agreement.

However, a few governments — like the United States, Canada, Russia, Iceland and Japan — are against opening up negotiations for a new implementing agreement under UNCLOS. They argue, among other reasons, that the crisis of the oceans can be adequately addressed by existing fisheries and other regional organizations, existing international laws and principles, and a simple commitment by states to prevent or apprehend industries involved in destructive fishing, mining and bioprospecting practices.

But other countries point to the fact that this crisis continues to unfold in the waters beyond their national borders, and argue that this proves existing governance arrangements, geographically by region or by sector, clearly are not enough to protect the oceans. They are also not convinced that the principle of the freedom of the high seas applies in the case of bioprospecting; instead, they say another UNCLOS principle — the common heritage of mankind — is more appropriate in this case. These nations argue that the diverse marine genetic resources on the seabed, the ocean’s floor, its subsoil and in the waters under the high seas must be explored, used and protected for the benefit of all, and not just for the profit of some technologically capable corporations or a few governments. If this will be the case, then there should be a governance structure and a system of ensuring access and sharing of monetary and other benefits among states — coastal, archipelagic and landlocked alike.

Regardless of whose side you’re on, it is clear that gaps do exist under UNCLOS.

The governments of Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, and their peoples, have a high stake in the upcoming oceans talks in New York. Southeast Asia will benefit most from a new implementing agreement that will provide for these five points:

  1. An explicit mandate for the protection, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction;
  2. Implementation tools, such as a mechanism to establish, monitor and control marine reserves; and to undertake environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and strategic impact assessments (SEAs) in areas beyond national jurisdiction;
  3. Harmonization and coordination among relevant instruments or regional, international and intergovernmental bodies;
  4. A mechanism for the access and equitable benefit sharing of the utilization of marine genetic resources (MGRs) in areas beyond national jurisdiction; and
  5. A strong monitoring, control and compliance system for activities on the high seas.
The devastation that huge corporations — some supported by their governments — are causing in our oceans affects us all. This is not the time to delay action by hiding behind agreements that are designed more to exploit the oceans rather than protect them. Now is the time for world leaders to show resolve and agree that we need a new implementing agreement for the protection of our common oceans. Now is the time to care about — and act on — a crisis unfolding beyond our territorial waters and affecting everyone and every living thing.

Zelda D.T. Soriano is the legal and political adviser at Greenpeace Southeast Asia. She will be a delegate to the upcoming United Nations Ad Hoc Working Group Meeting on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions in New York.

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