Oceans under pressure

Richard Synge

Our seas and oceans are coming under pressure from human activity like never before. Events like last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which killed large numbers of dolphins, whales, sea turtles, seabirds, fish and invertebrates, was no one-off incident. A recent scientific report presented to the UN highlights the ongoing damage from pollutants, chemicals, fertilisers, human waste and plastics. It warns that these are making the oceans more acidic, wiping out marine species at a far faster rate than earlier feared.

With global warming opening up hitherto inaccessible polar regions – helped by advances in technology – a new rush has begun to exploit whatever resources may lie beneath the Arctic region’s layers of ice and snow. Drilling for oil off Greenland has begun, arousing fears among environmentalists that a region considered to be the exclusive domain of nature will be open to the risk of severe pollution – with the likelihood of permanent damage to the natural habitats of some of the world’s rarest creatures.

The competition for resources also carries political sensitivities in the Arctic because of the lack of clarity and agreement over the region’s international borders. This can be defined as a strategic issue seemingly unconnected with the environmental risks, but clearly there is an overlap, not least because it touches on the interests of all people everywhere – as was long ago recognised in the case of the Antarctic, which in 1959 was declared a non-militarised zone where research is allowed for peaceful purposes, and where the preservation and conservation of resources is prioritised.

As Paul Berkman notes in our cover story: “Arctic Ocean stewardship requires balanced perspectives.” The ocean’s coastal states have their rights and jurisdiction, but the international community equally has rights and responsibilities in the international space of the High Seas – as defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In view of provocative events like Russia’s planting of its flag on the sea fl oor at the North Pole in 2007, Berkman urges global statesmanship to prevent the Arctic being “sliced into pieces of a geopolitical pie”.

The UN Convention, in the text fully agreed in 1982, laid down “a legal order for the seas and oceans, which will facilitate international communication and will promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans, the equitable and efficient utilisation of their resources, the conservation of their living resources, and the study, protection and preservation of the marine environment”.

Such noble aims could hardly be better expressed, and yet something is clearly missing in the world’s management of the oceans. Otherwise, we would know where to turn to prevent some of the human race’s gross abuse of the sea – not just the oil pollution and the accumulation of vast vortices of garbage in every ocean, but also the uncontrolled pillaging of whatever fi sh stocks still remain. Much of the sea is compromised by illegal activity of all sorts.

An under-reported angle of recent developments off Libya – where NATO ships have been patrolling the coast in support of the revolt against Colonel Muammar Qadhafi – is the blatant opportunism of fishing fleets poaching endangered tuna against all international rules. But this is nothing new. As tuna and whale meat can fetch huge sums in the fi sh markets of Japan, there is plenty of financial incentive for fishing fleets to breach the rules laid down by organisations like the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna or the International Whaling Commission.

Organisations like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace may bravely conduct their one-off missions to protect some of the best-known endangered species, but the overall outlook for the world’s fi sh and other creatures is bleak. The main reasons for concern are the ever-increasing rise in industrial fishing capacity, the growth and persistence of unregulated fi shing and the insufficiency and inefficiency of international regulations.

“I hope that countries start to see sense before we face the unprecedented depletion of global fi sh stocks,” says Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed in an interview in this issue.

Peace, equitable and efficient utilisation, conservation and protection are highly laudable ideals, but our politicians and world leaders seem too caught up in events onshore to spare a thought for how these might be applied to secure the future of our troubled oceans. The search for Arctic solutions may be a vital test case.

About the author:

Richard Synge, Editor of Global, is a freelance journalist, editor and writer, specialising in the politics and economics of Africa.


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November 22, 2011 9:13 am

The sea has always been abused and neglected. I cannot see this ever changing…

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