World leaders are now mobilizing to address concerns, not just about seabed mining, but about how to safeguard ocean systems which are increasingly being recognized as critical to global food security and a healthy planet.
In a video address delivered to a high-level ocean summit hosted by the Economist and National Geographic last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry invited leaders to a two-day summit in Washington that will seek ways of protecting fishing stocks from overexploitation and protecting the ocean from industrial pollution, plastic debris and the ravages of climate change.
The stakes have never been higher, scientists say. The oceans are becoming increasingly important to global food security, as each year more than 1 million commercial fishing vessels extract more than 80 million metric tonnes of fish and seafood from the ocean. Up to 3 billion people rely on the sea for a large share of their protein, especially in the developing world, and those demands are only projected to grow.
“If you look at where food security has to go between now and 2030, we have to start looking at the ocean. We have to start looking at the proteins coming from the sea,” said Valerie Hickey, an environmental scientist at the World Bank.
That makes it all the more crucial to crack down on illegal and unregulated fishing, which is sabotaging efforts to build sustainable seafood industries. Two-thirds of the fish taken on the high seas are from stocks that are already dangerously depleted — far more so than in those parts of the ocean that lie within 321km of the shore and are under direct national control.
Estimates of the unreported and illegal catch on the high seas range between US$10 billion and US$24 billion a year, overwhelming government efforts to track or apprehend boats carrying out illegal fishing, a practice which also hurts responsible fishing crews.
Figueres and Miliband have suggested fitting all vessels operating on the high seas with transponders to track their movements. That would single out rogue fishing vessels, making it easier for authorities to apprehend the vessels and their catch.
However, it is not a perfect solution. A diplomat who has negotiated international agreements to control illegal fishing said captains — already cagey about revealing their favorite fishing routes — would simply flip off the transponders.
UN officials were also skeptical of the idea of a high-seas police force.
“It sounds a little bit like science fiction for me at this particular moment,” said Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, which manages 46 marine sites. “What kind of police? Who is going to monitor? How is it founded? It’s a very complicated issue.”
Yet the debate is a sign of growing momentum in an international effort to protect the oceans before it is too late.
When it comes to the ocean floor, that process is in the very early stages, but given the multiple disasters humans have inflicted on the oceans so far, the stakes for getting it right are high.
“There is no doubt there are huge mineral resources to be extracted at some point in the future,” Lodge said. “It’s also true that we don’t know enough about the impact on biodiversity and the impact on marine life once the mining takes place.”