World - Governing the high seas

The high seas are not a total free-for-all, but risks to these areas are serious. There is no management of new activities, nor is there coordinated governance of existing high-seas industries, writes Thomas McInerney.

COP 26, the pre-eminent UN summit on climate change, took place late last year in Glasgow. The River Clyde and its port city have had a close connection with the high seas in not-so-distant history.

At one point in the early 1900s, a fifth of all ships globally were built in Glasgow. Despite this apt backdrop in which to discuss the dominant issues of the high seas, hopes were not exactly high in the lead-up to the summit.

We know from experience that representatives at the international negotiating table struggle greatly to tackle issues that fall outside national jurisdictions.

It may also be the case that, on the long list of environmental problem areas, the global commons have been relegated below more tangible, although not always realised, state pledges related to internal affairs – energy, farming, transport, and so on. (The term ‘global commons’ is a term used to describe global shared resources, including natural resources like the high seas, the atmosphere, outer space, and areas like Antarctica.)

Despite reservations, COP 26 resulted in the Glasgow Climate Pact, which includes calls for an annual dialogue to strengthen ocean-based action, to be scrutinised and reported back to the COP every year.

The high seas consist of everything beyond 200 nautical miles off our national coastlines. They account for around two-thirds of the world’s oceans and 95% of the planet’s occupied habitat.

Moby Dick

We know already that marine protected areas (MPAs) are an effective tool in coastal waters that provide a framework for implementing area-based conservation. On an economic level, MPAs ensure that human activity is kept to a level that will sustain biological diversity and productivity.

They allow the underwater ecosystem to recover from human exploitation and rebuild a natural carbon sink. This mitigates the effects of climate change and combats ocean acidification. In short, they work.

Global action is needed to protect our high seas and deep oceans in light of the ever-increasing demand for resources from corporations and governments looking to cash-in on the resource-rich marine global commons.

If we are not extremely careful, the wanton exploitation of the high seas in the name of fossil fuels, minerals, medicines, and food will be yet another global disaster to add to a growing list. Blackbeard, no longer a pirate, might soon be a licensee.

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