Jhe sea covers 71% of the surface of the globe. two out every five people live near the sea or depend on the sea for their livelihood. If the sea were a country, it would be the sixth largest economy. Ocean activities, including offshore energy, shipping, tourism and fishing, account for more than 5% of global GDP, while the World Bank claims that future economic growth will be driven by “blue growth”.
Yet the “blue economy” receives little attention from politicians or economists. A blasphemous section in the first draft of the Cop27 agreement in Egypt, mentioning informal meetings, quickly disappeared. Another United Nations circus is taking place in Montreal this week, known as Cop15, which aims to protect biodiversity. The danger is that ministers and diplomats will again be diverted from the economic causes of the crisis and let capital and finance continue to plunder nature.
The sea, the seabed and the coastline have become the largest sphere of privatization. In 1982 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) inaugurated the largest enclosure in history, converting a third of the world’s ocean area into state ownership by granting coastal countries 200 nautical miles of their coasts as exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Colonial powers with remote island territories did better: France and the United States gained more than 11 million square kilometers of sea surface eachwhile the UK gained 6.8 million square kilometres, or 27 times its area.
State ownership allows governments to entrust the exploitation of ocean resources to private companies. The UK and other countries have sold or granted private property rights in the sea with abandonment. The result has been rampant profiteering that has ravaged the ocean environment, depleting fish populations, pumping sewage, chemicals and plastics into the sea and destroying wetlands, mangroves and other coastal ecosystems to the development of aquaculture and tourism.
So what should Cop15 do? It aims to give teeth to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted in 1992 and ratified by 196 countries, with the flagrant exception of the United States. China, which assumes the presidency this year, has a poor biodiversity record. It is counted as the world’s worst offender on overfishing and illegal fishing. The country is also responsible for the consumption of half of 40-50bn tons of sand and gravel extracted each year from marine, coastal and freshwater ecosystems, mainly used to make cement. This led to a global shortage sand, shoreline and riverbank erosion and widespread habitat destruction.
In this context, negotiators and civil society organizations should focus on measures that would stop further damage and improve ecosystems. They should seek progress on the following proposals. Countries should commit to removing industrial fishing subsidies, £22 billion of which contribute to overfishing and illegal fishing, devastating fish populations and marine food webs. They should also end offshore oil and gas subsidies, which pose a direct pollution threat and fuel the climate crisis.
They should also emphasize securing marine protected areas of the sea with adequate policing, appropriate penalties and a ban on bottom trawling – the practice of dragging huge nets along the seabed that scoop up everything and damage the seabed. Fisheries surveillance is vital everywhere, and large fishing vessels should be required to have independent surveillance teams on board.
Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), which are supposed to regulate large fishing areas and species, should exclude representatives of companies and their donors from their decision-making bodies. Currently, they dominate most RFMOs, inhibiting measures to combat overfishing and destructive practices. And fisheries access agreements and joint ventures between long-range fishing nations and developing nations should be made transparent, with dissuasive penalties for breaking the rules.
Noise pollution is a recognized threat to ocean ecosystems, disrupting the breeding patterns and migration routes of marine mammals. Ocean noise levels have doubled every decade since the 1950s, with the main culprits being shipping and air guns used in seismic mapping for offshore oil and gas exploration. Governments should commit to reducing ocean noise, including brakes on ship engines.
COP15 should also support a moratorium on proposals deep sea mining in national and international waters, which could have a catastrophic environmental impact. Hundreds of scientists and policymakers have already called for such a ban. Massive machines would scour the ocean floor to pick up nodules containing cobalt, lithium and other minerals as well as rare earths, used to make electronic devices, electric vehicles and wind turbines, among other things. In addition to destroying everything in their path, they create plumes of sediment that can smother coral reefs and other organisms hundreds of miles from mine sites. And mining harms the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink, accelerating global warming.
Currently, only mineral exploration is authorized by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was established in 1994 to regulate deep sea mining in international waters. But without concerted international opposition, large-scale mining could begin as early as next July, after the peaceful island of Nauru triggered an obscure rule in Unclos requiring the ISA to develop regulations within two years or allow commercial mining. Either way, the mining kickoff has been fired.
Finally, governments of rich countries should commit to doubling the share of official development assistance devoted to protecting the oceans. current 1.6%. What should Britain offer? It should commit to transforming marine conservation areas from barely protected “paper parks” to properly protected ones and banning bottom trawling. It should make breaking fishing quota rules a criminal offence, not a civil one, with the added penalty of loss of quota rights. It should still stop auctions seabed mining rights to multinational corporations by the Crown Estate, and it should reverse cuts to the budget and personnel of the Marine Management Organisation. And, in addition to supporting an international moratorium on deep sea mining, it should provide greater transparency on the mining exploration licenses it has granted.
None of these proposals would be very expensive. All would have beneficial effects. Unfortunately, many will be opposed by corporate and financial lobbyists. That’s why they shouldn’t be at Cop15 at all. But they will be, en masse.