Death and hope on the high seas

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Sharks and their cousins, the rays, pre­date the dinosaurs. They sur­vived the cat­a­strophic mass ex­tinc­tion that fin­ished off Tyran­nosaurus Rex and all the rest, as well the Per­mi­anTri­as­sic ex­tinc­tion that wiped out around 96% of marine species. Even the more re­cently evolved shark lin­eages, such as the ham­mer­heads, have been around for more than 30 mil­lion years.

Yet in just a few decades, a quar­ter of all sharks and rays have be­come threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion. This is our fault – and it is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to fix it.

Shark and ray pop­u­la­tions are not alone. Many other com­po­nents of marine bio­di­ver­sity – es­pe­cially corals, marine mam­mals, seabirds, and tur­tles – are also strug­gling to with­stand hu­man pres­sures. As a re­sult, marine ecosys­tems are at risk of un­rav­el­ing and be­com­ing less sta­ble and less pro­duc­tive.

Given the broad range of threats fac­ing marine life – in­clud­ing over­fish­ing, cli­mate change, pol­lu­tion, and coastal devel­op­ment – it is easy, per­haps even ra­tio­nal, to be pes­simistic. Yet this year could mark the be­gin­ning of a more ro­bust ap­proach to safe­guard­ing ocean ecosys­tems, par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to over­fish­ing, which is re­spon­si­ble for pre­cip­i­tous de­clines in many species.

The chal­lenge ahead should not be un­der­es­ti­mated. Meet­ing it will re­quire over­com­ing one of the most in­tractable ob­sta­cles to marine con­ser­va­tion: en­sur­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity of bio­di­ver­sity in the roughly 60% of the world’s oceans that lie be­yond the ju­ris­dic­tion of in­di­vid­ual states.

Within the 200-nau­ti­cal-mile limit that com­prises their ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zones (EEZs), a few coun­tries have used a com­bi­na­tion of strong leg­is­la­tion, good man­age­ment, and ef­fec­tive en­force­ment to pre­serve fish stocks and ecosys­tems. (There have also been far too many counter-ex­am­ples.)

Be­yond the EEZs, how­ever, a per­ni­cious prob­lem arises: most living re­sources are de facto open-ac­cess, leav­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to over­ex­ploita­tion. While there have been nu­mer­ous well-in­ten­tioned at­tempts to im­prove man­age­ment of th­ese re­sources, all rely on in­di­vid­ual ac­tors’ will­ing­ness to con­cede the short-term eco­nomic benefits of in­ten­sive re­source use for the sake of the long-term com­mon good.

When­ever a cost arises from en­gage­ment with an in­ter­na­tional process, there will al­ways be an in­cen­tive not to play by the rules, to en­force them weakly, or not to par­tic­i­pate at all. This is es­pe­cially true for en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, where the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal re­quired is high; the need for near-unan­i­mous sup­port is cru­cial; the is­sues can be con­tentious; and the benefits are dis­pro­por­tion­ately dis­trib­uted and are re­alised over a long time hori­zon. A pass­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with the Re­alpoli­tik of cli­mate change sug­gests that this is an in­tim­i­dat­ing – if not in­tractable – chal­lenge, dis­play­ing el­e­ments of the most dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal and so­cial quan­daries: the prisoner’s dilemma, the free-rider prob­lem, and the tragedy of the com­mons.

At present, a web of leg­is­la­tion – in­clud­ing the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea, Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion guide­lines, and the Fish Stocks Agree­ment, as well as the Con­ven­tion on Mi­gra­tory Species of Wild An­i­mals – gov­erns ac­tiv­i­ties that may af­fect bio­di­ver­sity on the high seas. Yet the pro­tec­tion af­forded to living re­sources re­mains limited – and rid­dled with loop­holes.

For ex­am­ple, be­cause not all coun­tries are sig­na­to­ries to th­ese agree­ments, ves­sels can choose which flag to fly to avoid be­ing bound by reg­u­la­tions (a “flag of con­ve­nience”). Some fish­eries re­main out­side the ju­ris­dic­tion of any of the re­gional bod­ies that play a role in re­source man­age­ment. As a re­sult, il­le­gal, un­re­ported, and un­reg­u­lated fish­ing is worth bil­lions of dol­lars per year.

One promis­ing step, rec­om­mended by a UN work­ing group in Jan­uary, is the devel­op­ment of a new, legally bind­ing agree­ment on high-seas bio­di­ver­sity, to be ready for the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly to re­view by Septem­ber.

Such a co­or­di­nated and har­monised frame­work may help to close re­gional gaps in gov­er­nance; com­pel ex­ist­ing fish­eries bod­ies to work to im­prove out­comes; and ul­ti­mately en­able the devel­op­ment of new bod­ies that are fo­cused on man­age­ment and pro­tec­tion of ecosys­tems, not only fish stocks. That, in turn, may catal­yse the co­op­er­a­tion needed to cre­ate high seas marine pro­tected ar­eas, which would en­able dam­aged or de­pleted ecosys­tems to re­cover. Of course, to be ef­fec­tive, such ar­eas must be mon­i­tored. promis­ing devel­op­ment has been the use of satel­lite

A tech­nol­ogy to de­tect and ad­dress fish­eries vi­o­la­tions by in­di­vid­ual ves­sels. This could bring about a pro­found change for the bet­ter in ocean man­age­ment, par­tic­u­larly for coun­tries with large EEZs and limited marine en­force­ment ca­pac­ity.

A co­or­di­nated sys­tem for re­spond­ing to vi­o­la­tions is also vi­tal. Closing ports to ves­sels that break the rules could be achieved through the Port State Mea­sures Agree­ment, cur­rently await­ing rat­i­fi­ca­tion.

Ocean gov­er­nance and con­ser­va­tion is at a crit­i­cal junc­ture. Marine re­sources can­not be over­ex­ploited in­def­i­nitely. The forth­com­ing “bio­di­ver­sity be­yond na­tional ju­ris­dic­tion” agree­ment, un­der­pinned by novel ways of mon­i­tor­ing com­pli­ance, could im­prove ocean man­age­ment dramatically.

The dif­fi­culty is that, in any sce­nario, bet­ter man­age­ment as­sumes that we choose long-term sus­tain­abil­ity over short­term prof­its. Whether we will over­come our in­cli­na­tion to choose oth­er­wise re­mains to be seen.

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