Sat, Dec 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The final frontier: Who owns the oceans and their hidden treasures?

New technologies and a growing need for resources are propelling nations to explore the high seas and their seafloors — but no comprehensive maps or data are available, and regulation is thin

By Zoe Tabary  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON

Illustration: Tania Chou

Ransom-hungry pirates, polar explorers, offshore oil giants — the race for the riches of the world’s final frontier is on.

From Thailand to Alaska, the battle to tap ever-dwindling resources from minerals to fish is spurring new conflicts over who has the right to the treasures of the deep seas.

As India, China and Brazil seek new sources of cobalt, copper and nickel to build the gadgets demanded by their booming populations, they are preparing to mine a new realm — the dark depths of the ocean.

Over the next decade, India is to spend more than US$1 billion to develop and test deep-sea technologies — including human-piloted exploration submarines — in the Indian Ocean that could give access to once inaccessible mineral riches up to 11km under water.

“We have to depend on ocean resources sooner or later ... there is no other way,” said Gidugu Ananda Ramadass, head of India’s deep-sea mining project at the National Institute of Ocean Technology in Chennai.

However, mining the seas — home to the vast majority of life on Earth — carries huge risks and could cause irreversible damage to the environment, campaigners said.

Oceans — which scientists say are less understood than the moon or Mars — cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet less than 20 percent of their seafloor has been mapped or observed, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And what lies below the waves is worth trillions of US dollars.

The so-called “blue economy” of marine resources is expected to contribute US$3 trillion to the world’s GDP by 2030 — equivalent to the size of the UK economy — up from US$1.5 trillion in 2010, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

However, from overfishing to a rush to mine deep seas, to slavery on fishing boats, the world’s oceans are a source of growing dispute, not least over who should get access to them.

Experts have said that oceans are a neglected area of global governance, despite the UN 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 193 member states agreeing in 2015 to a global goal to sustainably manage and protect marine resources.

“Oceans’ governance is the classic public-good challenge,” said Dominic Waughray, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for Global Public Goods.

Smart rules are essential to keep oceans healthy — but because nobody owns them, “we have a real problem,” he said.

Existing regulations are patchy and have struggled to protect ecosystems in international waters, said Liz Karan, senior manager for the high seas at Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit organization.

However, a proposed UN treaty to protect ocean biodiversity — and prevent overexploitation — could change that.

Negotiations on a legally binding treaty — which would cover the high seas, or ocean areas that extend beyond national boundaries capped at 200 nautical miles (370km) from coasts — began in September and aim to reach an agreement by 2020.

Yet government and UN action are only part of the answer, experts said.

“Governments are good at setting targets, but to really get things done you’re going to need more than hoping UN agencies alone can fix this,” Waughray said.

He said technology and monitoring tools to enforce the would-be treaty would be crucial.

So who are the main players controlling Earth’s final frontier? And how will the global hunt for resources affect the communities who now depend on the seas to survive?

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