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Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the world’s surface, and marine fisheries provide food for billions of people. What is less known is that the high seas—the areas of the world’s oceans that lie beyond the 200-mile limits of national jurisdiction—make up roughly two-thirds of our oceans and 45 percent of the planet’s surface.
This area, which contains perhaps the largest reservoir of biodiversity left on Earth, is exploited by many countries but is effectively managed by no one. Moreover, it is under extreme pressure.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010, 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion—the highest such estimate ever.
The problem is certainly not a lack of commitments. Numerous important pledges have been made both at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro and at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD or Second Earth Summit) in Johannesburg in 2002. Rather, what has been missing is the fulfilment of these commitments. In regard to the ocean, it is critical that such mechanisms as international conventions and such effective institutional mechanisms as U.N. oversight, coordination and review be instituted. As Rio+20 approaches, States and other participants have a unique opportunity to fill these gaps.
States, and in particular the major fishing States, have failed to live up to the relevant provisions of the Rio Declaration and its progeny, as they relate to the ocean. The sustainable management of the ocean is essential to achieving the three pillars of sustainable development: economic development, social development and environmental protection. And, just as sustainable development depends on effective management of the ocean (PDF), it is imperilled by current mismanagement. As the U.N. secretary-general has noted:
"Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth. Admittedly, some of these changes have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but the balance is rapidly tilting in the opposite direction. The gains were achieved at the cost of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and indeed the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. Unless addressed, the benefits and possibly even the possibility of survival of future generations will be seriously eroded.“
Despite numerous internationally agreed-upon commitments, targets and timetables made in summits, conferences, meetings and workshops, the world has failed to make meaningful progress in numerous areas and on threats to ensure continued viability of the biodiversity of the high seas.
These threats include:
- illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing
- discards and bycatch
- trawl and habitat-damaging practices
- perverse government subsidies
- ineffective fisheries governance
- biodiversity loss
- habitat loss
- nutrient loading
- land-based, coastal and ocean pollution
- and climate change.
The current international institutional framework has contributed to the decline of the biodiversity of the high seas. Institutional fragmentation, weak international coordination, ecosystem assessment gaps, lack of enforcement and cooperation, poor performance of regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements (RFMO/As) and weak coastal policies have exacerbated the problem. Indeed, overfishing and the decreased biological production and losses of biodiversity that result, and ultimately the collapse of fisheries, are largely the product of institutional failure.
Despite strong language in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, the 1992 Rio Declaration and the 2002 Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI), governments have failed to reverse or even halt the degradation of the oceans. Four decades after the Stockholm Declaration called for safeguarding representative samples of natural ecosystems, only about 1 percent (PDF) of the world’s oceans have been protected.
Twenty years ago, the Rio Declaration stated that States would cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem; and six years ago, States at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) agreed to improve cooperation and coordination at all levels in order to address issues related to oceans and seas in an integrated manner and promote holistic management and sustainable development of the oceans and seas.
In June 2012, States will meet again in Brazil’s former capital for Rio+20. For this historic meeting, States have committed to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assessing progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of major summits on sustainable development and addressing new and emerging challenges. The twin foci will be a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development.Timeline: Putting the Ocean Back Into the Earth Summit