World’s Crisis-Stricken Oceans Doomed to Destruction Without a Global Treaty

Credit: UNICEF

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 3 2019 – The greatest single climate-induced threat facing the world’s 44 small island developing states (SIDS) is rising sea waters which could obliterate some of the low-lying states, including Maldives, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Palau and Micronesia.

The Marshall Islands alone, says the UN, has seen more than a third of its population move abroad in the last 15-20 years. Many have moved for work, healthcare and education – but climate change is now threatening those who have chosen to stay.

At the Conference of Parties (COP25) on climate change in Madrid December 2, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointedly warned that rising sea levels were twice as deadly today as it was many moons ago: while oceans are rising, he said, they are also being poisoned.

“Oceans absorb more than a quarter of all CO2 in the atmosphere and generate more than half our oxygen. Absorbing more and more carbon dioxide acidifies the oceans and threatens all life within them”, he added.

But bigger cities have not been spared either.

In an article titled “Warming Ocean Waters Have Fish on the Move”, The New York Times reported December 2 that Iceland, whose economy has depended largely on commercial fishing, has discovered that warming waters associated with climate change are causing some fish to seek cooler waters elsewhere beyond the reach of Icelandic fishermen.

Pointing out the hazards of climate change, Guterres says ice caps are melting. And in Greenland alone, 179 billion tonnes of ice melted in July. Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing 70 years ahead of projections. And Antarctica is melting three times as fast as a decade ago, he told delegates at COP25 which is scheduled to conclude December 13.

But there are two proposals before the UN, both aimed primarily at safeguarding the high seas: a Global Network of Ocean Sanctuaries and a Global Ocean Treaty.

Scientific expeditions in recent years have revealed that the high seas, 200 nautical miles from coastal shores, harbor an incredible array of species that provide essential services for life on Earth. Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Louisa Casson, an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told IPS that scientists and governments have coalesced around the concept of a global network of fully protected ocean sanctuaries, covering at least 30% of the world’s ocean.

The creation of this network is not just realistic, but of fundamental importance to the health of our planet, she said.

A new report, “Greenpeace’s 30×30: A Blueprint for Ocean Protection” authored in collaboration with the Universities of York and Oxford, sets out a scientifically robust and clear vision for a global network of ocean sanctuaries, totally off limits to human exploitation, which would give oceans and the wildlife that calls it home the space needed to recover and thrive.

To deliver this network, she said, governments at the United Nations must agree on a strong new Global Ocean Treaty in 2020.

“This treaty would help fix the currently broken system of ocean governance, which has allowed our ocean to be exploited to the brink of collapse.”

Such a treaty, she said, would provide a clear legal duty and process for nations to protect and restore ocean health through a network of sanctuaries, and set out a robust institutional framework for creating and effectively managing the network through a Conference of the Parties.

A new treaty should also provide clear enforcement obligations for all governments, and monitoring and review mechanisms to ensure the treaty is being properly implemented by all, said Casson.

The world’s high seas, which extend beyond 200 nautical miles, are deemed “international waters” to be shared globally– but they remain largely ungoverned justifying the need for a new treaty.

The world’s oceans have steadily undergone environmental destruction, including illegal fishing and overfishing, plastics pollutions, indiscriminate sea bed mining and degradation of marine eco systems.

Dr Palitha Kohona, a former co-chair of the ‘U.N. Working Group on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction’, told IPS the concept of ocean sanctuaries and protected areas has been on the table for some time.

He said it is high on the agenda of Western NGOs and many European countries.

And there is a historic compromise in place between the Group of 77 developing countries (G77) and the European Union (EU) on the outlines of this concept and benefit sharing, he noted.

“Properly identified and policed, ocean sanctuaries and marine protected areas (MPAs) will help to protect the habitat of identified species and the breeding grounds of diverse marine life forms which took millions of years to evolve,” he said.

It is hoped that agreement on these will at least help to arrest the decline in the number of marine species, said Dr Kohona a former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations.

However, a longstanding demand for benefit sharing by developing countries also needs accommodation. A compromise can be achieved. There are precedents which can be adapted, he said.

Biological diversity in the oceans could very well provide the impetus for the next wave of innovations in the pharmaceutical industry and the developing world is acutely conscious of being excluded from it benefits.

“We know that species extinction is occurring at an unprecedented pace, including in the seas and oceans. Global warming is contributing substantially to this phenomenon”.

At the same time, species adaptation to changing weather and climate factors is threatening the livelihood of millions who depend on the oceans and seas for their living.

He said fish swim away from familiar habitats to areas where the temperature is more conducive to their existence.

Attempts to arrest global warming have received storms of verbal support but not much by way of practical action. Some in positions of power have even challenged the overwhelming scientific view in order to cultivate uninformed electoral support, he noted.

“At COP 25 in Madrid, we need to encourage thinking that would balance economic consolidation and advancement and the conservation of the environment for our children. Our future must not be left to whims of those who thrive in ignorance,” he declared.

Casson pointed out there is wide agreement on the need for a new Global Ocean Treaty.

However, governments have been negotiating on a new treaty for years now, and as industrial vested interests step up their lobbying there is a serious risk of the treaty failing to change the status quo, leaving governments unable to deliver effective ocean protection.

She said governments that are truly supportive of proper marine protection must step up when the United Nations meets next year, and fight for the strongest Global Ocean Treaty possible.

“Without a robust new treaty, the ocean crisis will only worsen, which will have wide implications for our planet’s health and for all of humanity,” she warned.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has proclaimed a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) to support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health.

The marine realm, says the UN, is the largest component of the Earth’s system that stabilizes climate and support life on Earth and human well-being.

The impact of multiple stressors on the ocean is projected to increase as the human population grows towards the expected 9 billion by 2050.

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