Marine governance: a matter life or extinction

The conclusion of the first interdisciplinary meeting of scientific experts on the world’s ocean is that the health of our oceans is even poorer than originally thought. The workshop, led by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), took place on 11-13 April 2011 and a summary was released on 21 June. The report describes the “negatively synergistic” (p.4) effects of hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and anoxia (absence of oxygen), acidification and ocean warming, and explains “that these are three symptoms… associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth.” (p.5) Overfishing and chemical leaching are adding to the stresses on our ocean ecosystems. The report also identifies climate change as a major factor reducing the resilience of the oceans’ ecosystems to stress factors with a strong risk of them collapsing. (p.6)   

As the report itself states, “The findings underscore the need for more effective management of fisheries and pollution and for strengthening protection of the 64% of the ocean that lies beyond the zones of national jurisdiction.” (p.4) In other words, the only way we are going to be able to tackle these problems is through better governance.

Currently, the world’s oceans are governed through a great many different regimes. First, different areas of the ocean are governed by different entities and laws. (See the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) The waters surrounding a country’s territory, up to 200 nautical miles, are essentially governed by the coastal state. The ocean beyond this is known as the high seas. These are open to all states for navigation and fishing, subject to treaty obligations and other provisions relating to the conservation of living resources. Second, there are treaties governing various ‘themes’, such as straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. (See the Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks) Finally, there are regional organisations such as the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization governing certain themes within certain regions. On top of this, other issues that impact on the oceans, such as climate change, are managed through entirely separate regimes.

Given that the issues facing our oceans are so complex and the governance arrangements are so fragmented, it is no surprise that coordinated action to manage the problems named in the IPSO report is lacking. Action to streamline marine governance is urgently needed.

To date, most of our efforts to improve ocean governance have involved enclosing them; that is, assigning jurisdiction of parts of the ocean to a single entity with the authority to make laws, as discussed above. This is a common solution to the problem of managing public goods: The idea is that if a country owns particular resources, it has an incentive to manage them well. However, we cannot solve the governance problem this way, because 1) we do not want to enclose certain areas of the ocean, such as strategically-important straits, 2) we cannot enclose the whole ocean because it would be politically impossible to obtain agreement about which state would manage which parts, 3) to date the effectiveness of a national management approach with a view to protection of common resources has been largely disproved as competition for resources contained in them has time and time again lead to over-exploitation and degradation of the commons in question.

The alternative has so far been management through treaties and organisations that countries join voluntarily. The problem of fragmentation has already been discussed. A second issue that often agreements cannot be enforced because there is no ‘international ocean police force’ – a common problem in the anarchic international sphere.

The IPSO report’s recommendation to establish a UN Global Ocean Compliance Commission (GOCC) is interesting because it proposes to tackle both of these issues. The Commission would essentially be responsible for governing all the issues related to the management of the high seas, including “highly migratory and straddling species, discrete high seas species, pollution including long-range/transboundary pollution, illegal fishing, overfishing, marine spatial planning, protected areas and ecosystem conservation and other processes and activities that may adversely affect the High Seas.” The Commission would have the power to enforce compliance with agreements governing the high seas by levying fines and imposing other sanctions.

What seems to be missing from the GOCC proposals is the Commission’s participation in governance regimes for interconnected issues such as climate change, trade and development. The report itself states that “Human interactions with the ocean must change with the rapid adoption of a holistic approach to sustainable management of all activities that impinge marine ecosystems.” This can only occur if the impacts on oceans of decisions made in other areas are considered, and an entity such as the GOCC would be ideally placed to ensure this occurred.