Our Burning Planet


A New Deal for the Ocean

(Photo: Unsplash/Marek Okon)

The ocean is a commons that humanity depends on for its survival. We need to reimagine the future governance of the ocean that draws on new literature and global activism.

We need to rethink our relationship with the ocean. The extent of humanity’s dependence on the ocean is becoming more and more evident, but strategies to sustainably manage its resources are constrained by opposing vested interests and contested ocean spaces.

Earth is a blue planet – 70% of its surface is covered by the ocean. The ocean provides 50% of the oxygen we breathe, houses between 50% and 80% of life on Earth, absorbs 25% of CO2 emissions and has to date taken up more than 90% of the warming caused by excessive unsustainable emissions. It also provides three billion people with nutrition, many of whom depend on seafood as a primary source of protein.

A Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that our climate system is irrevocably linked to the ocean. Yet, services that the ocean provides face massive challenges from warming due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss as a result of deoxygenation and acidification, overfishing and pollution. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report ranks biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as one of the top five threats humanity will face in the next 10 years.

These existential threats loom large on the horizon, while the window of opportunity for action closes and the costs of doing so rise. It is, therefore, time to rethink the future governance of the ocean. We have contributed to this discussion in a paper published last week in Nature entitled  A transition to sustainable ocean governance. This paper was based on a report we helped co-author entitled The Ocean Transition: What to Learn from System Transitions commissioned by the High-Level Panel on the Ocean that comprises 14 heads of state.

This comes at a time when a new implementing agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is being negotiated. Known as the internationally legally binding instrument for conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (the BBNJ), this agreement goes some way towards addressing the challenges we face. But we have to go a lot further.

South Africa has a rights-based Constitution which provides that everyone has the right to an environment that is not detrimental to his or her health or well-being. This section also mandates the state to ensure that the environment is protected against any harmful conduct. South Africa’s territorial waters (as with all coastal states) are divided into different zones, which fall within national jurisdiction, up to the 200 nautical mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

(Photo: Unsplash/Jakob Owens)

The foundation provided by this environmental right (and the legislation which guides and enforces its implementation) is echoed in many other constitutions around the world. This can be useful for the protection of ocean resources in areas that fall within the coastal state’s jurisdiction (see for example WWF South Africa and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and others [2018] 4 All SA 889 WCC). Beyond national limits, the ocean is defined as the high seas, and falls outside of national jurisdiction of any coastal state.

These so-called “areas beyond national jurisdiction” are generally subject to weaker governance and poorer management. A 2019 UNEP global assessment of environmental rule of law found that despite substantial growth in national and international environmental laws and agencies worldwide over the last four decades, weak enforcement is a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats. Mining for fossil fuels and minerals below biologically sensitive ocean beds is, for example, a growing threat. David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment said: “This compelling new report solves the mystery of why problems such as pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change persist despite the proliferation of environmental laws in recent decades. Unless the environmental rule of law is strengthened, even seemingly rigorous rules are destined to fail and the fundamental human right to a healthy environment will go unfulfilled.”

We have proposed that we need a universal human right to the environment as one of the bases for reconfiguring ocean governance.

In addition, the reality is that the ocean cannot be considered as pieces of a spatial puzzle – it is an interconnected complex and dynamic ecosystem that needs to be considered as a shared commons. While coherent and enforceable regulatory mechanisms are necessary, what is also required is a shift in societal values towards a sustainable future. The increasing prevalence and dominance of transnational corporations is challenging the central role governments play in defending the commons. A societal shift reinforced where possible by good business leadership could help shape an agenda that ensures a sustainable ocean.

The way we govern the ocean needs to shift to a more inclusive approach, which takes account of the embeddedness of the ocean in the wider planetary system. We argued in the Nature paper that the ocean should be seen as a commons – a non-state, non-private shared resource that can only be protected if stakeholders who depend on it take collective responsibility for preservation and restoration with self-devised protocols, values and norms. An integrated approach will mean a transition to an adaptive, responsive global governance system for governing the ocean-as-commons.

Fortunately, the ocean is resilient and research has shown how good ocean stewardship generates positive results for biodiversity and fish stock in quick turnaround times. In economic terms, a transition to a sustainable ocean economy will deliver benefits that far outweigh its costs. It has been shown through a recent report by the Ocean Panel that an investment of $2-3.7-trillion globally in four key areas – conserving and restoring mangrove habitats, scaling up offshore wind production, decarbonising international shipping, and increasing the production of sustainably sourced ocean-based proteins—from 2020 to 2050 would generate $8.2-$22.8-trillion in net benefits, a rate of return on investment of 450-615 percent.

(Photo: Unsplash/Gatis Marcinkevics)

Responsible stewardship of the ocean must result in better accountability and transparency which, in turn, can enable justice, innovation and new knowledge. Supply chain transparency has, for example, been made possible with certification schemes, and knowledge sharing apps such as Abalobi. This app allows the consumer to follow the supply chain story of the fish on their plate, right down to the fisherman who caught it.

Ocean data is enabling better management and enforcement through satellite surveillance, and accelerating scientific research. This plethora of ocean information that is emerging holds enormous potential to accelerate change through shared learning and knowledge, if the right mechanisms are put in place.

Lasting ocean governance requires a holistic approach to ensure that the benefits for the ocean are secured, but we need a clear vision and a shared plan of action. The pandemic has demonstrated how we can mobilise political will and collective action in the face of life-threatening crises.

In the words of President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, a member of the High Level Panel on the Ocean:

“Food from the ocean is of great economic and social value to Kenya and the rest of Africa. Millions of us in Kenya and across Africa depend on the ocean for income, jobs, food, protein and other nutrients. Yet, harnessing the potential of our ocean to provide food for the future cannot be achieved by any one country alone. It requires a unified global vision, centred around sustainability, multilateral actions and significant investments to support nations in their efforts to secure jobs, food and nutrition for billions of people.”

We make four primary recommendations. They all stem from our key point of departure, namely that the ocean is a commons that humanity depends on for its survival. This means that the traditional organising principles of modern industrial society – the nation-state and the market – are inappropriate for imagining the future governance of the ocean. Instead, we need to draw on the new literature and global activism related to the building of commons-based peer-to-peer systems that make possible many-to-many communications and collaborations on a global scale.

From global commons initiatives like Mozilla Fox and Wikipedia to “maker spaces” and “fab labs”, there are now countless collaborations across all world regions between “commoners” committed to creating shared knowledge resources in the public domain that various entrepreneurial and social networks access and deploy for their particular purposes. A well-structured “wiki-type” global knowledge commons for the ocean would connect the vast range of civil society, research, watchdog, public and private institutions that share a commitment to build the knowledge resources that will enable more sustainable ocean governance.

We propose four key opportunities for action to strengthen ocean governance:

  1. Support for the current UN ocean processes (specifically the ratification of the new UNCLOS agreement and voluntary commitments under the UN Our Ocean Conference).
  2. In line with the argument for a “global environmental right”, the reconfiguration of ocean governance in ways that transcend the limits of national sovereignty. This would include establishing a polycentric governance framework with a new “global ocean agency” at the centre.
  3. Support civil society’s ability to play a more significant role in global ocean governance via the establishment of a global-local ocean knowledge commons.
  4. Integration of property rights with ecological stewardship responsibilities to establish local user rights programs that results in shared responsibility for coastal regions by coastal communities. DM

Mark Swilling and Tanya Brodie Rudolph are at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University.


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