What Happens If We Don't Protect the High Seas?
If we don’t take action collectively, we’ll all pay the price individually
There’s a proverb I’m fond of: "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” I thought of this proverb as I followed the recent UN negotiations around a treaty to establish international governance for the high seas.
The high seas—the part of the ocean that lies outside of any national territory—cover almost 50 percent of the planet, but as of now they are subject to few regulations of any kind. The proposed UN treaty aims to establish guidelines “for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.” With three more negotiation sessions to come, the goal is to ratify by the spring of 2020.
When I wrote just over a year ago that “We Need a Paris Agreement for the Ocean,” it was precisely this sort of international governance I was advocating for. These negotiations are an important step in this direction, with proposals for vast new protected areas and changes to the way nations have conducted fishing, mining and bioprospecting in the open ocean. But many of these proposals are already meeting resistance.
Perhaps part of the issue is we have not made clear just what will happen if we don’t protect marine environments, including those in the high seas. So let me state this plainly: if we don’t take measures now to protect the high seas—collectively, globally—the costs will likely be catastrophic: biologically, economically and geopolitically.
Look at the world’s fisheries. According to the FAO, 90 percent of wild fish stocks are currently harvested at or over their sustainable capacity. That’s because fish constitute 17 percent of all animal protein consumed in the world; for developing countries, that share rises to 26 percent. As many as 200 million jobs are connected to global fishing industry—fish are the single the most-traded food commodity worldwide. With another 2 billion people expected on the planet by 2050, demand for fish will certainly increase.
Fisheries are not the only resource being overexploited. The ocean floor houses vast untapped reserves of oil, gas and rare minerals that are necessary for many new technologies. There is also growing potential for bioprospecting—the search for species whose biochemistry or genetic makeup could yield commercially viable products, such as pharmaceuticals. Both bioprospecting and deep sea mining could generate significant wealth—and cause significant damage to ocean ecosystems, depending on how they are carried out
Current proposals to the UN treaty, based on the implementation of the precautionary principle, would require environmental impact assessments to be conducted before such activities could take place, or restrict or ban them altogether in new Marine Protected Areas. But as the Washington Post notes, there’s another fundamental question about resources found in the high seas: do they belong to everyone on Earth, or to those who are the first to identify and harvest them?
All countries have legal access to the high seas, but it’s a much a smaller set that currently has access to the capital and technology required to actively pursue resource extraction on the ocean floor. As the representative from Algeria noted at the UN negotiations, in the absence of a formal agreement on sharing monetary and non-monetary benefits, “a minority on this planet will appropriate marine genetic resources … is this what we want? At least two-thirds of this room don’t share this opinion.”
The disputes that can arise from these disagreements play into a geopolitical background, of course, and could even lead to larger conflicts undermining safety in the ocean. In fact, US Coast Guard Commander Kate Higgins-Bloom has warned that a conflict over fisheries is more likely than one over territory in the near future.
But there are other, even more eminent risks. The state of the ocean’s biodiversity is closely connected to climate change. While it's true there is growing concern about climate change, many forget that the ocean is the world’s largest carbon sink, the lungs of the planet. Mangroves, reefs and other coastal ecosystems also store large amounts of carbon, which is released to the atmosphere when these ecosystems are degraded or destroyed.
And while these ecosystems are mostly coastal—part of national waters—they are affected by what happens on the high seas. Nature does not observe national boundaries; in fact, many commercial fish species spend their early lives in coastal habitats before migrating to the high seas as adults. Global actions will affect local territories, and vice versa.
If we see further degradation of these ecosystems, we’ll see consequences for all nations, but especially those along the coasts, where the impacts of sea rise and storm surges hit hardest. Lack of ocean protection will not only accelerate climate change—it could impact our resilience to its impacts. Coral reefs, for example, provide coastal communities with important protection from storm surges. But they have already been pushed toward extinction by climate change, pollution and overfishing. The ripple effects of further damage to high seas biodiversity could reach all through national waters and up to the world’s major coastal cities.
Can we avoid these grim outcomes? We can, but the tipping point is coming closer—we have to act now. The good news is that, through active conservation, nature can still recover and people can thrive. Sustainably managed fisheries, for example would actually increase catch levels, and the creation of more protected areas can allow for fish populations to rebound.
And as The Nature Conservancy’s Atlas of Ocean Wealth demonstrates, there are many ways the ocean generates wealth without exploitation or even extraction. Coral reefs, for example, generate significant financial wealth by driving tourism, protecting coastal property, and other values.
The key to unlocking such value is better understanding where and how value is generated, and working with local stakeholders to preserve, nurture and invest in these ecosystems, as TNC has with the government of the Seychelles to create a Marine Spatial Plan that covers nearly all of its sovereign waters. Imagine the benefits if such protections were extended to the high seas?
What this means, I think, is that it is in every nation’s interest—even landlocked ones—to support robust international governance for our high seas. I think again of that proverb: going alone might be faster, but it won’t get us anywhere we want to go. If we don’t act now to conserve our oceans collectively, we will all suffer individually.