Are the Oceans Failed States?


In the early hours of March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 lost contact with air traffic control just one hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur. Since then, a multinational effort has scoured the Indian Ocean floor, deploying aircraft, ships, and even a robotic submarine in search of the wreckage. Yet four months on, the jet remains lost in the least accessible and most ill-understood ecosystem on the planet.

Only about 5 percent of the ocean floor has been mapped in detail. We know more about the contours of the moon and nearby planets than we do about the basins of the high seas. But however remote these depths might seem, no corner of the ocean is untouched by human activities. As a result of these impacts, much of it is now in peril.

That is the conclusion of the Global Ocean Commission, which reported in late June that the planet’s largest and least-protected bioregion is close to collapse. The independent body, which includes former heads of state, government ministers, and ocean scientists, points to a perfect storm of escalating threats to the sea: overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution, as well as ocean acidification and warming due to climate change.

Scientists have known for decades that the seas are in trouble. But the commission’s report goes further than earlier assessments in blaming the ocean’s precarious position on the lack of effective governance by international institutions. Like so many citizenries, the populations of the sea are victims of ineffectual bureaucracies. Resources are being plundered with impunity by the wealthy, and there is no police force or established judiciary to maintain the rule of law, the commission said.

In June, Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace published the annual Fragile States Index, which analyzed the social, economic, and political stability of countries across the globe. But the list may have left out one particularly unstable region: the ocean. According to former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, the 65 percent of the ocean that lies beyond the territorial waters of nations should now be considered “a failed state.”

“Here, beyond the jurisdiction of any government, lie the high seas,” Miliband said in an email, “where governance and policing are effectively non-existent and anarchy rules the waves.” Echoing Miliband, Carl Safina, founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute (now called the Safina Center), an environmental advocacy organization, called the ocean “a pre-state apocalypse. It is like the Wild West in the Space Age.”

The report portrays an ecosystem in crisis. Fish stocks are being rapidly depleted. Half of the world’s coral reefs have already died, victims of rising water temperatures and ocean acidity. And according to the report: “[U]p to 60% of ocean species could be extinct by 2050 if climate change is not urgently addressed.”

It is not that global standards purportedly meant to protect marine life do not exist. Rather, they are largely toothless. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which establishes generalized guidelines for the management of marine resources, lacks enforcement mechanisms. Even now, 20 years after the convention was established, the United States and several other countries have not yet ratified the treaty, which means they are not legally bound to its principles.

In addition to broad international agreements like UNCLOS, Safina says, governments have negotiated regionally focused fisheries quotas for particular species. But in these negotiations, he says, prudent management often takes a back seat to narrow economic self-interest as countries jockey to obtain the best deal for their own fishing industry with little regard for the long-term viability of species.

In the absence of capacity or will to enforce legal standards, the ocean’s plunder has accelerated. Underage fish are being taken both in and out of season, catches are underreported, no-fish zones are violated, and quotas are routinely ignored. Indiscriminate fishing practices are laying waste to whole fish populations and even underwater ecosystems.

The commission’s report specifically calls for an end to destructive methods, such as long-line fishing, which employs hooked lines that can stretch 50 miles long, and the dynamiting and the cyanide poisoning of reefs. Perhaps worst of all, according to former U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief scientist Sylvia Earle, is bottom-trawling: Fishing boats drag massive nets across the seafloor like bulldozers, scooping up every living creature in their path — and ripping out ancient deep-sea coral beds in the process. The gashes made by some of these miles-long trawl lines are clearly visible from space.

The waste of life is simply appalling, says Earle. “For every pound of fish that goes to market,” she says, “10 pounds or even a hundred pounds [of noncommercial species] are killed in the process and simply thrown away as bycatch.”

Exacerbating the pillage is the fact that 18 of the world’s richest countries, most of them in Europe and East Asia, are keeping otherwise unprofitable fishing operations afloat with billions of dollars in fuel and other subsidies. Thus more boats are going out in pursuit of fewer and fewer fish. In all, fully 87 percent of the fish stocks on the high seas, according to the report, are now being overfished or at the point of collapse.

But overfishing is only part of the problem. The commission report also highlights the crisis of trash, particularly plastics. An estimated 10 million tons — roughly the weight of 40 aircraft carriers — ends up flushed into the world’s oceans annually. “Marine organisms get entangled in plastic debris,” says Oxford University ecologist and commission scientist Alex Rogers. “Dead sea birds have stomachs full of plastic objects; turtles swallow plastic bags because they resemble jellyfish which they prey on.”

Even more insidious, says Rogers, is microplastic pollution, which includes broken-down fragments and the tiny beads used in exfoliating facial washes. Marine scientists worry that microplastics, which are ingested by small fish, may eventually end up in seafood-eating humans.

Another source of potential pollution of the seas is underwater gas and oil production. Deep-sea drilling is expected to increase in coming years, especially in areas like the Arctic where melting sea ice is opening the seafloor to exploration. Yet the risk is not simply that of catastrophic oil spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Fish and marine mammals are also threatened by seismic surveys, discharges of drilling fluids, methane emissions from gas flaring, and other impacts of the drilling process. There are currently no internationally accepted rules to govern this potentially hazardous activity.

Sea life is also affected by the profound and man-made warming of the planet. Penguins and marine mammals such as walruses and seals will lose much of the sea ice that they depend on in the years ahead. Cold-loving species, such as cod and lobster, will also lose habitat and need to migrate to cooler waters. Many species of shellfish and coral will be unable to survive in the increasingly acidic conditions in the ocean.

A recent study by a U.K.-based academic research team predicts that even the plankton upon which much of the ocean’s life feeds may diminish as the world heats up.Plankton are responsible for half the Earth’s photosynthesis, so their decline in the ocean may lead to less oxygen and even more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which is warming up the atmosphere, further accelerating the progress of climate change.

The Global Ocean Commission hopes that documenting the myriad challenges facing marine populations will help galvanize the world into action. It is not yet too late, it says, to take steps to regenerate damaged underwater ecosystems. The report recommends a range of interventions, including phasing out wasteful fuel subsidies for fishing boats, the creation of an independent oversight board on ecological preservation, and new international environmental standards established for offshore drilling and deep-sea mining.

Key to the recovery of the ocean, the report says, is the creation of protected ocean reserves, where fishing is prohibited and imperiled species can regain a foothold.

This idea appears to be gaining some traction. At the U.S. State Department-sponsored “Our Ocean” conference” in mid-June, President Barack Obama announced in a videotaped statement his intention to create by executive authority a vast marine reserve in the waters surrounding the United States’ Pacific islands. The proposal for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is now in a public comment phase. When the final plan is put into effect later this year, the monument could become the largest network of marine protected areas on the planet. Island countries such as Palau, the Bahamas, the Cook Islands, and other ocean states made similar commitments at the conference to establish reserves where fishing is banned or highly restricted in their territorial waters.

It is “a giant step in the right direction,” according to Earle. “Places where the fish are protected, if enough resilience is there, the ocean can be returned to prosperity.”

“You can’t go back to what was,” Earle adds, “but you can make these systems better than they currently are. It’s happened in the Florida Keys; it’s happened in protected areas off the coast of Chile and Mexico.”

But for this to happen, in addition to improving regulatory processes, certain fundamental attitudes toward the natural world will also have to change. For instance, people will need to shift to eating lower down on the food chain, says Earle, and they will also have to stop regarding the ocean as civilization’s dumping ground.

“We have to rethink what we are taking from these natural systems,” she says. “The next 10 years are the most important in the next 10,000 years for protecting the life-support system upon which we all depend.”