Two years ago, as British foreign secretary, I led the process of protecting the ocean around the Chagos Islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory — the largest single marine area in the world (covering an area twice the size of the UK) where no commercial fishing is allowed. A host of threatened species, including turtles, sharks, rays, tuna and coral are now protected.
The current British government has a similar opportunity to turn 800,000km2 of Pacific Ocean around the tiny British Overseas Territory of Pitcairn into a no-take marine reserve. Pitcairn’s seas are full of species found nowhere else: A bold and funded commitment by the UK government to protect them, which would have the islanders’ support, would place Britain at the leading edge of expertise in a crucial knowledge sector of the future.
Proper governance in international waters is more difficult to achieve, but is equally pressing. Many of the intergovernmental organizations charged with managing fisheries regionally are mismanaging their responsibilities spectacularly. Only 0.5 percent of the high seas, outside national jurisdiction, are protected. Ironically, in an era of mounting resource competition, cooperation to rebuild depleted fish stocks would actually result in a greater catch for all.
The UN Rio+20 meeting this summer came close to launching negotiations to plug the holes in UNCLOS. The move was blocked, partly by the same fear of multilateralism that held back the Thatcher government 30 years ago. However, this legacy of the Cold War is out of sync with the times. Unless we manage our interdependence far more effectively, we will all be poorer.
In the coming months, international pressure to tackle this crisis will grow. Governments, companies and individuals have a responsibility to listen to the facts and decide for themselves if they are part of the problem or the solution. From companies exploiting weak enforcement of rules and countries hiding behind short-term definitions of national interests, to consumers letting supermarkets get away with unsustainable purchasing, we need a renewed debate on the future of our oceans and the life that they support.
Last week’s anniversary of UNCLOS is a reminder of the great things that countries can accomplish when they work together — and of the significant steps that remain.
David Miliband, foreign secretary of the UK from 2007 to 2010, is a member of parliament.
Copyright: Project Syndicate