The Critical Path to Global Ocean Protection

“The Critical Path to Global Ocean Protection”
Greenpeace’s strategy for Protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030

A report from Sally Campbell

With all the focus on the sustainability of salmon fish farming off Arran’s spectacular coastline and questioning over its environmental impacts there is some encouraging news about our seas.

After decades of industrial fishing, plastic pollution and other human activity, our oceans are on the brink of irreversible damage. One major part of our oceans under threat are the vast areas that lie beyond national borders, known as the high seas. These areas occupy 43% of the Earth’s surface and occupy two thirds of the planet. International waters face growing exploitation from a handful of mainly rich nations, with industrial fishing and emerging deep sea mining joining threats from climate change.

Crucially current law focuses more on the right to exploit these international waters than on a duty to protect them. But there is hope as, after decades of lobbying, the United Nations have begun negotiations for a new Global Ocean Treaty, due to conclude in spring 2020. This Treaty would create ocean sanctuaries in the high seas. Currently less than 5% of our oceans have the protection they need and only 1% of high seas.

Greenpeace recently published 30X30: A Blueprint for Ocean Protection and launched a 10 month Pole to Pole expedition on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza from the Arctic to Antarctic crossing the Atlantic, looking at sharks’ protection, deep sea mining, plastics in the Sargasso Sea, the Amazon Reef and then to south west Atlantic where away from scrutiny and regulation, industrial vessels use destructive fishing methods to catch marine animals in astounding numbers. With these vessels often transhipping their catch on to factory ships, the area is infamous for some of the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Finally to the Antarctic where parts are warming up three times faster, yes three times faster, than other parts of our planet. Here climate change places a huge strain on marine life, two of which are Emperor Penguins with their breeding on sea ice, and krill, one of Antarctic’s most important food sources. The high dissolved oxygen content, a result of very cold waters in this region promote biological productivity and diversity.

Results so far are encouraging, as Greenpeace have produced a report Sharks under Attack: Over Fished and Underprotected. Just last week countries have agreed to protect more than a dozen shark species at risk of extinction, in a move aimed at conserving some of the ocean’s most awe-inspiring creatures who have themselves become prey to commercial fishing and the Chinese appetite for shark fin soup. The move is not final but is a key sign before an official decision at its plenary just this week
Three proposals covering the international trade of 18 types of mako sharks, wedgefishes and guitarfishes each passed with a needed two-thirds majority in a committee of the World Wildlife Conference known as CITES. Scientists warn that although warming oceans and climate change are also hurting sharks, it is the demand for shark fin soup that is threatening to drive some species to extinction. It is estimated that between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed every year, mostly to feed the shark fin trade centred on Hong Kong.

Dealing with the potential threat by deep sea mining, Greenpeace released another new report, In Deep Water: The Emerging Threat of Deep Sea Mining. The report highlights the limitations of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the regulator for deep sea mining- to protect deep sea environments from cumulative stresses such as fisheries, climate change and plastic pollution. It highlights the need for a Global Ocean treaty. Although deep sea mining has yet to begin in international waters, one area under treat is the Lost City in the mid-Atlantic, a complex seafloor ecosystem of hydrothermal vents with their associated rich metal content a kilometre below sea level. It has already been licenced by the ISA for exploration, and Greenpeace rightly accuses the ISA of serving industry, rather than protecting the seabed and global oceans.

Plastics in the Sargasso sea were investigated by researchers on Esperanza to study the impact of plastic pollution on marine life in this unique environment. In particular the importance that the Sargasso’s drifting Sargassum seaweed habitat has for the development of juvenile sea turtles. Greenpeace witnessed the unique web of marine life as well as a tragic amount of plastic pollution threatening its survival. With the University of Florida, researchers sampled 50 small clumps and medium size (from table to bus size) mats of Sargassum, plus daily trawls for microplastics. Sadly early findings show the concentration is equal to or even exceeding that of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In one sample, the team found 1,298 fragments of microplastic, which is higher than the levels found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, now estimated to be twice the size of France.

University of Florida scientist Nerine Constant measures a mat of sargassum seaweed as part of their study to see if sargassum might act as an incubator to sea turtles with warmer temperatures than the surrounding water. Image: Greenpeace.

At the end of this month, August, the third round of Global Ocean Treaty negotiations (IGC3) are scheduled to take place at the UN in New York. Greenpeace have submitted their recommendations for improving the text of agreement, keeping the pressure up, regularly briefing the UK delegations and then hosting an official event with Oscar winning actor and Ocean Ambassador Javier Bardem. He spoke as a representative of Greenpeace, which continues campaigning for the Global Ocean Treaty being discussed at the UN. Greenpeace reiterated that the UN’s 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea does not go far enough to protect the planet’s oceans. It seeks to establish a network of sanctuaries to protect marine life that goes beyond national jurisdictions.

Recent  UN meeting with Javier Bardem. Image: Greenpeace.

Governments hope to reach agreement on the treaty sometime next year. As always, the lobbyists from destructive industries were out in force, trying to preserve the current broken system. But thanks to ocean protectors around the world, they can no longer do it without adverse publicity. Almost 1.8 million people have signed the petition calling on governments to get this done, and this was the moment to show them large sections of society mean it! Greenpeace and others lobbying for change, took over Times Square with life sized whales, turtles and other models of creatures in a call for ocean protection.

Greenpeace activists flew a giant turtle kite outside the United Nations headquarters in New York as countries gathered to begin negotiations, for the first time in history, towards a treaty covering all oceans outside of national borders. The large and colourful kite, representing iconic marine life, was flown from boats on the East River.

Greenpeace activists fly a giant turtle kite outside the United Nations headquarters in New York as countries gathered to begin negotiations, for the first time in history, towards a treaty covering all oceans outside of national borders.

Meanwhile Esperanza continues her voyage, raising the public’s awareness of the crisis our oceans are facing. Next important area to research and highlight is the Amazon Reef, the little known coral ecosystem under threat from oil drilling, in pursuit of yet more of the fossil fuels causing climate change. Then onwards to the south west Atlantic to investigate the extent and damage of illegal, unreported, unregulated, (IUU) fishing; finally to Antarctica. I am encouraging you to keep in touch with their progress and offer support. The oceans are host to a huge ecosystem, precious to all living creatures, important in climate control; and we need to protect these seas from further damage simply to meet our selfish ends!

Greenpeace (2019) The Critical Path to Global Ocean Protection
Greenpeace (2019) Protect the Oceans: Ocean Sanctuaries Campaign. Progress update: August 2019

See Greenpeace for more information

P.S. With the aim of ending overfishing, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) voted this week to regulate the trade of 18 depleted species of sharks and rays. Brilliant news!

Sally Campbell August 2019