By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
A paper published last week in the journal Current Biology, The Location and Protection Status of Earth’s Diminishing Marine Wilderness, documents the dire worldwide state of ocean wilderness.
The paper concluded that only 13.2% (∼55 million km2) of the world’s ocean could be classified as marine wilderness, and most of this was far away from coastal areas (e.g., coral reefs). Only 4.9% of marine wilderness is currently within marine protected areas.
The paper emphasizes that targets to retain marine wilderness are needed in global conservation strategies.
We found that only 4.9% of global marine wilderness (2.67 million km2) is inside [marine protected areas (MPAs]), despite 6.97% of total ocean area being under protection. This protection occurs almost exclusively within national waters, with 12% (2.65 million km2) of global wilderness within [exclusive economic zones] , but only 0.06% (0.02 million km2) of wilderness in high seas protected. Global wilderness protection is high in some populated regions, with 98% protected in Temperate Southern Africa and 17% protected in the Central Indo-Pacific). However, these areas also have very little total wilderness left (<5%), suggesting that MPAs play a crucial role in preserving the small amount remaining. Wilderness protection is much lower in remote areas, such as the Southern Ocean and Northern Cold Water realms, where few MPAs are designated..
Considerably more global marine wilderness remains in offshore ecosystems (49.7 million km2) than in coastal ecosystems (5.5 million km2); but the proportion of protected wilderness is similar (4.4% and 4.8%, respectively). In coastal ecosystems, the vast majority of protected wilderness (93%) is in soft-bottom areas, rather than habitats such as rocky reefs or coral reefs that people depend on for food and income ). However, despite having low wilderness extent and areal protection, these ecosystems have high proportional levels of protection, with 66% and 26% of rocky reef and coral reef wilderness being covered by MPAs, respectively. A substantial amount of wilderness in these ecosystems is contained in large, remote MPAs, such as the British Indian Ocean Territory MPA. Offshore ecosystems generally have more protected wilderness area than coastal ecosystems but lower proportional wilderness protection (Jerri-Lynn here: citations omitted).
The scientists who conducted the research were surprised by their findings, as the Guardian reports in Almost all world’s oceans damaged by human impact, study finds:
“We were astonished by just how little marine wilderness remains,” says Kendall Jones, at the University of Queensland, Australia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, who led the new research. “The ocean is immense, covering over 70% of our planet, but we’ve managed to significantly impact almost all of this vast ecosystem.”
Jones said the last remnants of wilderness show how vibrant ocean life was before human activity came to dominate the planet. “They act as time machines,” he said. “They are home to unparalleled levels of marine biodiversity and some of the last places on Earth you find large populations of apex predators like sharks.”
What Is To Be Done?
Many of the problems that are spoiling ocean wilderness originate on land, Jones told the BBC in Ocean wilderness ‘disappearing’ globally, with fishing comprising one of the most significant direct impacts:
Runoff of nutrients from farming fertilisers, chemicals from poorly controlled industrial production, and the influx of plastic pollution from rivers are all disrupting ocean life.
“Plastic pollution is one of the big things that we want to work out a way to get data on,” he told the BBC.
“It’s so widespread and so hard to manage that we really want to get a good idea of where it is and where is most affected.”
Regular readers will be aware that I have discussed the plastics problem in several previous posts; the ones that focus on oceans include: US, Japan Reject G-7 Ocean Plastics Charter, Planet or Plastic, Plastics Pollution Policies– “Bold” or Pathetic?, and Plastic Watch: Great Pacific Garbage Patch Grows.
One way to take some action on oceans would be via an extension to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. As the BBC reports:
The UN are currently considering a legally binding addition to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would mandate conservation and sustainable use of international waters – currently not protected.
The first of four conferences to determine the details will take place in September 2018.
In particular, the Guardian noted that scientists highlighted fishing subsidies as a problem:
…They also said the $4bn a year in government subsidies spent on high seas fishing must be cut. “Most fishing on the high seas would actually be unprofitable if it weren’t for big subsidies,” Jones said.
The new work joins recent studies in highlighting the threat to oceans. Scientists warned in January that the oceans are suffocating, with huge dead zones quadrupling since 1950, and in February, new maps revealed half of world’s oceans are now industrially fished. “Oceans are under threat now as never before in human history,” said Sir David Attenborough at the conclusion of the BBC series Blue Planet 2 in December.
Alas, the United States has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention treaty. Although the US participated in negotiations on the treaty between 1973 and 1982, the Reagan administration refused to sign the convention, according to an article in The Diplomat, U.S. Ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention:
As a result, the United States remains off the list of 168 state parties to UNCLOS, a list which includes all other major maritime powers such as Russia and China. In practice, the United States has accepted and complies with nearly all the treaty’s provisions. On March 10, 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued the United States Oceans Policy Statement, supported by National Security Decision Directive 83, which documents the U.S. view that UNCLOS reflects customary international law and fulfils U.S. interest in “a comprehensive legal framework relating to competing uses of the world’s oceans.” Successive presidential administrations – Republican and Democrat – have relied upon Reagan’s precedent to legitimize and guide the Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program in global hot spots like the South and East China Seas.
So even as the United States invokes UNCLOS to assert the freedom of navigation and challenge excessive maritime claims, Washington has no seat at the table in protecting U.S. rights and claims within the treaty’s institutional framework. As a non-party, Washington remains on the outside looking in as the international community moves forward in defining the legal landscape affecting over 70 percent of the world’s surface.
I read that to mean that the bottom line here is that in this as in so many other environmental protection areas, I would be willing to bet the farm that the Trump administration is unlikely to participate actively in any negotiations to extend the UN framework to include a high seas conservation annex. That is yet another reason to think that even if serious negotiations were to commence to extend the convention, whatever might be achieved would be too little, and too late, to address the magnitude of this and other ocean crises.