The oceans cover about 70% of the planet’s surface and are the main regulators of global climate. They produce much of the oxygen we breathe and support enormous biodiversity, far richer than what we see on land. But they don’t always get the recognition they deserve. We tend to think more about the land and less about the oceans, which also makes us less motivated to protect the oceans from the environmental harm we’re inflicting on the planet.
Much of what we do affects the health of the world’s oceans. In fact, more than 80% of marine pollution is estimated to come from land-based activities. From coral bleaching to sea level rise, entire marine ecosystems are being damaged or destroyed, affecting numerous species of animals and plants around the world. We’re basically changing the entire fabric of the planet’s oceans: global warming is altering the chemistry of the oceans and many oceanic processes and is threatening species that can’t cope with the higher temperatures.
Also, nearly one-third of the world’s fish stocks are already overfished. Fish once extremely abundant, such as bluefin tuna, are now increasingly threatened. Which begs the question: why aren’t we doing more to protect the oceans?
A ban on fishing subsidies
Global leaders are apparently shifting oceans closer to the top of their environmental agenda, alongside climate change and biodiversity. As an initial part of these three global agreements have been promised — agreements that could make a big difference for the oceans, if they are first agreed upon, and then respected.
One of the deals was already signed and the other two could be finalized in the next few years.
It took over 20 years, but governments at the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreed two weeks ago on a deal to eliminate harmful subsidies that are affecting fish populations and damaging the marine environment. Governments spend about US$35 billion on fishing subsidies every year, with $22 billion of that considered harmful.
Global production of fish and seafood has quadrupled over the past 50 years, and the average person eats twice more seafood than last century. Fishing has grown dramatically as an industry, and this has taken a big toll on oceans. Over a third of the ocean’s systems are overexploited and could collapse if current trends continue. Much of the other two-thirds are maximally exploited, which means that any increase could also cause them to collapse. In fact, just 6% of the world’s fish stocks are underfished.
This problem is amplified by subsidies. Basically, countries are paying fishing companies money to fish in places that would otherwise be unprofitable to exploit. This increase in fishing activity drives fish stocks to unsustainable levels and changes the marine environment, also affecting the livelihoods of coastal communities around the world that rely on fisheries. It is hoped that by eliminating these subsidies, the pressure on fish stocks (and in turn, on ocean ecosystems) will drop.
The new agreement bans subsidies for operators engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and also curbs funding that supports the exploitation of overfished stocks. In order to reach a consensus, countries put off a deal on some types of subsidies that proved elusive, but these would continue to be discussed later this year.
A high seas treaty
Governments have been trying for years to reach a global agreement that protects marine life on the high seas, the parts of the world oceans that fall beyond the territorial waters of any individual state. The endeavor is described as very important for protecting the world’s biodiversity and limiting the effects of climate change.
While there are laws and treaties that tackle marine activities within countries’ jurisdictions, very little reaches the high seas, which cover 95% of the world’s oceans in terms of volume. Countries began negotiating the deal back in 2004 and could finally sign it this year in New York in what would be the last negotiating round. It remains to be seen whether they actually will.
The agreement would regulate all marine activity on the high seas, limiting mining, polluting, overfishing, and other actions that affect biodiversity and speed up climate change. It would also help create new marine protected areas on the high seas. Environmentalists want to have 30% of the oceans protected by 2030.
However, such a treaty would be an enforceability nightmare. Enforcing laws in territorial waters is hard enough, doing the same in no man’s land, on the high seas, is bound to be problematic. But agreeing on something is a first step — afterwards, we’ll see whether it can be practically enforced or not.
An agreement on plastic pollution
Earlier this year, governments agreed at the UN to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics, described as a historic moment by environmental organizations. The agreement will be negotiated in the next two years and should be ready by 2024. It will cover the full lifecycle of plastics, from production to disposal.
Plastic waste has grown to become one of the most significant environmental problems of our time. The UN estimates that we have moved from two million tons of plastics produced in 1950 to almost 400 million tons in 2017. Over 12 million tons of plastics reach the world’s oceans every year, a figure that could triple by 2040.
Microplastics, fragments of any type of plastic smaller than five millimetres, are one of the leading plastic problems. They have already reached the remotest and otherwise pristine parts of the planet, such as Everest, and we are not sure of how much damage they might be causing to humans. For animals, the damage is already visible.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen just how impactful these deals will be on protecting oceans. It’s debatable just how much the Paris Agreement has done for our climate efforts, and there was much more effort and emphasis behind the Paris Agreement. Still, it’s a sign that we’ve not completely abandoned the oceans. Maybe, just maybe, there is yet hope.