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Climate•5 min read
Almost 200 nations have pledged to protect the high seas — but what does that mean for world oceans and the so-called blue food economy?
Words by Jennifer Mishler
An historic agreement in defense of the world’s oceans was reached earlier this month when what is commonly known as the High Seas Treaty was signed by almost 200 members of the United Nations. Endorsed at the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, the pact will establish a governing body with the authority to protect marine life from fishing and other activity in international waters.
Long-awaited by conservationists and environmental experts, the High Seas Treaty is important because waters found beyond any government’s rule comprise over 60 percent of the sea. The agreement provides the power to establish marine protected areas — crucial to the international 30×30 goal of protecting 30 percent of land and sea by 2030.
On the heels of this unprecedented accord, seafood producers and other stakeholders in the industry will convene in London for the Blue Food Innovation Summit from May 23-24. The conference will explore the state of the booming aquaculture industry, the welfare of its animals — of whom it produced over 96 million tons in 2020 — as well as metrics for its “sustainable” and “restorative” practices.
Despite industry claims, fish farms have fallen short as a sustainable solution to overfishing. Overcrowded, they are conducive to the spread of disease, and can impact wild animals and their ecosystems when farmed fish escape or pollution, antibiotics and pesticides leak into surrounding waters.
Below are some of the key problems researchers say must be addressed to safeguard the sea and its ability to sequester carbon in a rapidly changing climate.
Overfishing, the catching of fish at a faster rate than their numbers can recover, is widely believed by experts to be the greatest threat facing the world’s oceans. It can result in biodiversity loss and a disruption of the balance of oceanic food chains.
Nearly 100 million tons of fish were captured from the sea in 2020, a catch worth $141 billion, according to the latest data from the Food and Agriculture Organization. While this production marked a 4 percent decrease compared to recent averages, it is still a staggering total given that aquaculture — often touted as a solution to overfishing — surpassed 135 million tons the same year.
Industry subsidies, inadequate monitoring and poor regulation of fisheries and oceans are all driving the ongoing plundering of fish populations .
Even worse, the problem may go far beyond what is reported. Bycatch — when marine species are unintentionally caught by fishing gear — could account for as much as 40 percent of the global catch, according to some estimates.
Globally, almost 90 percent of wild fish stocks are considered fully depleted.
A recent study finds that plastic pollution in our oceans doubles every 6 years, and that currently, the sea contains 170 trillion tons of particles.
The UN Environment Programme states that 5 trillion plastic bags are used globally every year — and that each minute, consumers buy 1 million disposable water bottles. Around 36 percent of all plastic, the organization reports, comes in the form of single-use packaging.
However, while much of the blame has been laid upon individuals — and our daily actions certainly do have an impact — industry is largely responsible for the problem at hand.
Plastic production has risen significantly since the 1950s, reaching 430 million U.S. tons in 2021. That same year, a report concluded that 20 companies are responsible for over half of the world’s single-use plastic, with Exxon-Mobil topping the list.
Commercial fishing also plays a larger role than consumers may expect. Research shows that discarded fishing gear accounts for 10 percent of the plastic in our oceans — and as much as 86 percent of the North Pacific Garbage Patch.
In 2021, offshore drilling accounted for 15 percent of crude oil and 2 percent of gas in the U.S. Undertaken by an industry worth over $700 billion in the U.S. and $4.3 trillion globally, drilling can endanger marine life from beginning to end.
The search for oil and gas below the ocean’s bottom often begins with a process called seismic surveying, which uses powerful blasts from airguns to locate resources. Their volume can reach 240 decibels that can cause injury or death to marine mammals such as whales and dolphins who rely on sonar or echolocation — sound waves that bounce off nearby objects — in order to find prey and navigate. Whales sometimes try to escape the disorienting sound, even ending up fatally stranded on beaches.
Leaks and explosions can also cause oil to flow into the ocean. Between 2010 and 2019, the U.S. averaged nearly 2 spills per day.
Perhaps the most infamous example is the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which an explosion on a BP rig resulted in approximately 134 million gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico over a span of 87 days — and the deaths of 11 workers.
Not only is the oil itself toxic, but chemical dispersants used to try to eliminate spills can be too.
The UN calls the oceans “the planet’s greatest carbon sink,” as they have absorbed approximately 90 percent of heat as emissions have increased. But just as the planet is warming, so are its oceans, and to detrimental effects.
The ten years leading up to 2022 marked the highest ocean temperatures seen since the 1800s or earlier, NASA reports. Storing heat, which leads waters to expand, is responsible for as much as one-half of sea level rise globally, according to the space agency. Rising waters reached a record-high in 2021.
Another closely related problem is acidification. As oceans warm, they are capable of holding more carbon dioxide, which leads to increasingly acidic waters. This trend puts marine life at risk in several ways, including jeopardizing the abilities of crustaceans to build shells and of coral reefs to grow their skeletons. Reefs offer protection to our coastlines and important habitats to millions of aquatic species.
Marine protected areas are intended to safeguard portions of the ocean by prohibiting or restricting human activity within their designated boundaries. As of December 2022, there were over 18,000 ocean sanctuaries globally, spanning 8.16 percent of the sea, according to the World Economic Forum.
These refuges are considered essential to achieving the goal of 30×30, and while the new High Seas Treaty offers hope for the establishment of more ocean sanctuaries, research shows that current regulations to protect these areas are not adequately enforced. Worse, current regulations are not sufficient to meet current conservation goals.
Part of the problem is inconsistent regulations. Not all marine protected areas are created equal — some completely forbid any extraction of natural resources (including fishing) while others merely restrict it.
It’s easy to feel like life on land has little impact on the oceans, but in truth, human activity is causing vast degradation of marine ecosystems.
The good news is that there are many simple ways to help protect the oceans on a daily basis. Look into the Hope Spots campaign, which is working to create more marine protected areas.
You can also reduce your consumption of seafood, and instead, choose from the wide range of increasingly available plant-sourced alternatives. Decrease the amount of plastic you buy — especially single-use plastics such as disposable straws and water bottles. By cutting seafood out of your diet, you also help address plastic pollution by withdrawing support from the use of fishing gear.
For more information, refer to A Conservationist’s Guide to Protecting the Oceans by Nicholas Carter and, as always, Sentient Media’s Take Action page offers many ways to help animals and the environment.
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