The Lawless Sea

The ocean is our planet’s life-support-system, keeping it healthy and productive. But overfishing and pollution are causing tremendous damage, and there is virtually no governance or rule of law to prevent it.

SANTIAGO – The rule of law is almost entirely absent, with virtually no governance or policing. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated economic activities are common. The powerful seize non-renewable resources at the expense of the powerless. Environmental degradation is on the rise.

That may sound like a description of a failed state, a desperately poor country beset by civil war, or a fictional dystopia. But it is none of the above. The vast region (45% of the earth’s total surface) with next to no governance or rule of law is the high seas – nearly two-thirds of the global ocean that lies outside of any country’s jurisdiction.

How is this possible? After all, there is the legally binding 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has been ratified by 166 states and the European Union. When UNCLOS was negotiated, the high seas were protected because they were inaccessible. But technological advances have enabled the exploitation of resources to extend farther and deeper than ever before. Fishing vessels can now operate across the ocean, and deep-sea drilling provides a growing proportion of our oil and gas. UNCLOS has not kept pace with these developments.

Industries and activities such as fisheries, shipping, and seabed mining are all regulated separately. No governance framework is in place for emerging high-seas industries such as energy production. Transparency and accountability are weak, and there is little enforcement of rules.

Moreover, the authorities have limited power to intercept vessels suspected of illegal activity. As a result, international cooperation to counter illegal fishing, smuggling of weapons and drugs, human trafficking, piracy, and the use of vessels in terrorist operations has been greatly hampered.

The consequences are dire. The ocean is our planet’s life-support-system, keeping it healthy and productive. But overfishing and pollution are causing tremendous damage.

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Marine debris causes the death by drowning, suffocation, or starvation of some one million seabirds and around 100,000 marine mammals (seals, whales, and dolphins) every year, not to mention the hazard posed to shipping by sea junk. Plastic pollution – including pellets and micro plastics that enter food chains and can endanger human health – is a growing problem.

Likewise, rising temperatures are reducing the ocean's oxygen-carrying capacity. The increasing uptake of carbon dioxide is causing ocean acidification and unprecedented changes in chemical and physical conditions, which in turn are affecting marine organisms and ecosystems. The very life of the global ocean is under threat.

The time has come to bring the rule of law to the high seas. That is the purpose behind the Global Ocean Commission, an independent international body comprising former heads of state, ministers, and business leaders. I am one of the commissioners. Last week, we proposed a rescue package that offers eight proposals to improve governance and restore ocean health.

To strengthen high-seas governance, the Global Ocean Commission is joining the call for a new agreement under UNCLOS to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. Less than 1% of the high seas is currently protected, so it is crucial that this new agreement includes provisions for creating protected areas in the high seas.

We are also proposing that an international convention be adopted to establish liability and compensation for both economic losses and ecological damage caused by offshore oil and gas exploration and production, which should also always be subject to legally binding safety protocols.

Despite overfishing, a handful of countries – including the United States, Japan, and China, as well as the EU – are artificially supporting industrial high-seas fishing. Without subsidies, high-seas fisheries would not be financially viable. We are proposing that subsidies be capped immediately and eliminated within five years, and that countries be fully transparent about all fishing subsidies, about 60% of which directly encourage unsustainable practices.

Moreover, to eliminate illegal fishing, which strips our oceans of marine life, we are calling for mandatory identification numbers and the tracking of all high-seas fishing vessels, and a total ban on transshipment at sea. By closing loopholes, we will finally close our ports and markets to illegally obtained fish. An independent Global Ocean Accountability Board – the creation of which we are also proposing – should monitor progress on all of these fronts.

In five years, if ocean decline continues and adequate prevention measures have not been implemented, the international community should consider turning the high seas – with the exception of those areas where action by regional fisheries management organizations is effective – into a regeneration zone where industrial fishing is forbidden.

We can reverse ocean degradation, and turn the cycle of decline into a cycle of renewal. We know what needs to be done to restore ocean health, but we cannot do it alone. Delivering change will take political will and require joint efforts by governments, businesses, and civil society. It can and must be done.

Join our mission at The time to act is now. Unless we respond with strong governance and the necessary tools to enforce regulations, ruthless pirate fishing will continue with impunity, there will be no binding international safety standards for deep sea oil and gas drilling, and plastic pollution and abandoned fishing gear will continue to proliferate. The more the global ocean struggles for life, the more our children and future generations will struggle for theirs.