Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Great 'Indaba' (gathering) of the high seas

Just 12 hours before the new Global Ocean Commission started its historic first meeting in Cape Town, the fisheries department announced yet another poaching bust in which 4 643 illegally harvested perlemoen weighing more than 1.2 tons, and valued at about R1.2-million, were found in a house in Mitchells Plain.

Although the perlemoen would not have been poached from the high seas of international waters – the area of interest of the commission that covers about 65 percent of the oceans – this incident is indicative of the rampant poaching problem that afflicts all the oceans of the world, and goes under the blanket title of IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing in global legal jargon.

IUU fishing is just one of many difficult topics that the commission will be grappling with during the next 12 months as it prepares to make substantive recommendations on how to reverse the decades-long degradation of the world’s oceans and restore their ecological health, with huge implications for global food security. Other recommendations are likely to include how to revitalise the 31-year-old UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

The high-powered commission has just one year to complete its work, with its recommendations due to be fed into the UN General Assembly discussions on protecting high seas biodiversity – a commitment made at the international Rio+20 summit last year.

The commission originated as an initiative of US-based trust, the Pew Environment Group, and is hosted by Somerville College at the University of Oxford in the UK. It is co-chaired by South Africa’s planning minister Trevor Manuel, former Costa Rican president José María Figueres and former UK foreign secretary David Miliband.

On the eve of the commission’s first meeting in the city, Manuel said he had at first been reluctant to take on this additional task, but had eventually agreed after sustained pressure and after President Jacob Zuma had given his approval.

“Part of what they wanted, I suppose, was a group of commissioners who would have the ability to be heard, without any pretence of being ocean scientists,” he explained. “And we’ve now put together a commission and it’s actually extremely exciting.”

Part of the commission’s work would involve looking at “certain gaps and omissions” in management of the high seas since Unclos was signed in 1982.

“Movement over the last 25 or 30 years in this area has been very encouraging, but what you have is a convention and an agreement about what happens in the oceans, but not much oversight.”

Manuel agreed that IUU fishing was a major challenge, but pointed out that the behavioural change necessary to bring it to a halt was possible – particularly because the technology to track fishing vessels was available.

“The problem, of course, as we see from the behaviour of vessel owners – and a case in point would be the Seli 1 that they’re demolishing at Blaauwberg – is that when people are making money from sailing rust buckets, they feel no compunction about rules.

“I think that what will need to happen, even in an environment of so many ships flying flags of convenience, is that there will have to be an entirely different regime.

“And it’s very important that we deal with how we can affect behaviour – we spoke about this at the brief meeting that we had in December.

“I said, ‘You know, not too long ago we all smoked in our offices, and in movies and in restaurants – it would be very strange to see any of that kind of behaviour now’.

“Behavioural change is possible because these changes have happened in our lifetimes. You can effect behavioural change if there’s political will, and the rules are understood and the intentions are clear.

“So if we want to preserve the ocean and its bounty for successive generations, we’re going to have to act now. And if leaders are not in the zone for a whole variety of reasons, I think what the commission must try to do is to get this on to the agenda of decision-making.”

Manuel said he was increasingly concerned about the maritime security issue, particularly around Africa.

“We’re very concerned because the security issues that arose in the Gulf of Aden have impacted as far as northern Mozambique.” Similarly, there was a security problem in the Gulf of Guinea that was unlikely to remain confined to a small area without a strong response.

“On the African continent, where naval capacity is as poor as it is, we need to do some big thinking about this issue.”

Another issue that the commission would discuss was mining or extracting oil from beneath the seabed outside countries’ 200-nautical mile (360km) exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

This shifted the debate, Manuel said, adding that when mining or extracting outside of the EEZ, policing was also a big issue. “We saw what happened in the Arctic when the different countries went in there to plant flags – I think it’s a very dangerous development.”

There were also physical and biodiversity issues to consider, such as changing toxicity levels and acidification of seawater.

“And then ultimately we’re also dealing with the impacts of climate change where temperature changes to the water, and possible variations to sea levels, will also impact on biodiversity, etcetera, etcetera. So there is a whole range of issues for us to think about.”

Manuel said he was “very encouraged” by the number of commissioners who had arrived in Cape Town, and that the secretariat was “very well prepared”.

“I’m sure we’re going to get a good basis to take the work forward. To get through the hoop of putting something substantive on the table of the UN by next year, I think we’re going to need a big, big push.”

In a statement, Manuel’s co-chairman Miliband said the high seas were “clearly out of sight, and too often they are out of mind as well.

“The area of the high seas adds up to almost half of the Earth’s surface, and it’s unthinkable that we can allow such a vast, economically productive region to continue being ‘out of mind’.”

Global Ocean Commission: the key players

The Global Ocean Commission originated as an initiative of the Pew Environment Group, in partnership with Somerville College at the University of Oxford, the Dutch-founded private Adessium Foundation, and the global funders’ collaborative Oceans 5.

Other commissioners are:

  • Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, former Nigerian education minister and co-founder of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International.
  • Vladimir Golitsyn, judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. 
  • Robert Hill, former environment and defence minister of Australia, currently chancellor of the University of Adelaide. 
  • Sri Mulyani Indrawati, managing director at the World Bank and a former finance minister of Indonesia.
  • Yoriko Kawaguchi, chair of the environment committee in the upper house of the Diet, and a former foreign minister and environment minister of Japan.
  • Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organisation. 
  • Paul Martin, former prime minister of Canada, a prominent advocate for African development.
  • Cristina Narbona, former environment minister of Spain, recently appointed to Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council - Cape Argus
Source: iol scitech

Image courtesy of elias_daniel via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)