Global panel on oceans needed, say marine experts

Posted: 24 October 2007

International marine policy experts warn that new threats to the world's oceans are undermining its ability to sustain life. They call for an Intergovernmental Panel on the Oceans to better inform policy-making, in much the same way as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently does.

The new threats to the marine environment arise from unregulated activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction, they say. These include ocean iron fertilisation, seismic testing and bioprospecting.

The experts, meeting in New York, warn that, in conjunction with the predicted effects of climate change, these activities threaten to undermine the ocean's ability to sustain life and to regulate the atmosphere which we breathe.

"Overfishing, destructive fishing practices, such as high seas bottom trawling, and other extractive activities have already resulted in serious declines in global fish stocks and marine biodiversity," said Kristina Gjerde, High Seas Policy Advisor to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). "The only way to make progress is through an ongoing and concerted international effort."

Legal gaps

Recent proposals to mitigate climate change through ocean iron fertilisation and other "geo-engineering" solutions highlight a number of gaps in the legal framework and governance regime for the high seas.

"While the international legal regime for protection of the marine environment contains a number of broad environmental principles, these principles are not well defined, and as a result, they have not yet been implemented effectively," explains Professor Rosemary Rayfuse of the University of New South Wales. "There is still a misconception that the high seas are inexhaustible and that they are a limitless dumping ground for human waste. The increasing number of threats to this vast area highlights the need for urgent action."

Building on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the group also called for the development of a UN Declaration of Principles for the protection of the marine environment and its biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction as an essential first step towards ensuring the consistent application of modern standards to protect ocean health and services.

Fishing summit

The organization of a high-level fishing summit among key fish-consuming nations was seen as a key step towards developing a common market-based approach to eradicate illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and to improve protection measures.

The group called for immediate action to underwrite environmental impact assessments for all human activities on the high seas including the proposed "geo-engineering" solutions, coupled with more effective enforcement mechanisms.

"The sustainable management and protection of the high seas requires us to acknowledge our dependence on the oceans as the lungs of the planet and as a major provider of food and ecosystem services. Humanity is rapidly pushing the limits of the productivity and carrying capacity of the oceans," concluded Gjerde.

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