By Marjo Vierros
Over the decades, human activities in and near the world’s oceans have increased exponentially, resulting in serious negative consequences for the state of our marine environment. Scientists are seeing greater and faster change, with more rapid declines in ocean health than had been previously anticipated. Today we live in an age of a changing climate, and no part of the ocean is unaffected by human influence. Some areas, particularly those near large population centres, are strongly affected by multiple pressures. The threats facing the oceans are many and include unsustainable and destructive fishing practices; illegal and unreported fishing; pollution from both land-based and ship-based sources; habitat destruction; the introduction of invasive species; ocean noise; ship strikes (collisions between cetaceans and vessels); the mining of minerals; and the extraction of oil and gas. The adverse impacts resulting from these activities act cumulatively with the effects of ocean acidification, ocean warming, shifting currents, reduced mixing and decreasing oxygen levels. While marine ecosystems and species might be able to withstand one type or intensity of impact, they are much more severely affected by a combination of effects.
The total impact can often be greater than the sum of its parts. The declining health of the oceans has dire consequences for people, their livelihoods and entire economies, with the poorest communities that rely on ocean resources often being the most affected.
The multiple human pressures affecting the oceans have real bearing on how effective governance should be undertaken. The governance of marine and coastal areas in many countries and in international waters is primarily sectoral, with fisheries agencies regulating fisheries catches; environmental agencies dealing with pollution prevention; and other specialized agencies regulating shipping, mining, and oil and gas extraction. Strategies and policies for biodiversity and the environment, fisheries, climate change and poverty reduction are also often developed and implemented by a diverse set of agencies. And herein lies the problem. Cumulative impacts cannot effectively be managed in isolation. Multiple stressors call for integrated management, which means that we need to urgently develop a more holistic approach to ocean governance. The sectoral management of old will not be enough to address the increasing degradation of the oceans. The need to understand and manage the interactions and cumulative effects of multiple stressors has been identified as one of the most important questions in marine ecology today.
Complicating matters is the fact that the marine environment is generally considered ‘publicly owned’, and indeed the areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction are referred to as the global commons. The customary marine tenure systems that are found, for example, in many countries of the South Pacific and in Japan provide an exception to the open-access nature of most ocean areas. This lack of ownership can lead to a ‘tragedy of the commons’, and an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude often prevails, resulting in the degradation of biodiversity in ocean areas. Thus, an important component of moving forward with ocean governance is an understanding by both decision makers and the general public that all of humanity depends on the oceans for its survival, and thus all are ocean stakeholders.
From a governance perspective, marine areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) present particular challenges. Even if the need for integrated and coherent approaches to address the multiple threats to the oceans is well understood, there is no State, organization or other institution that bears the overall management responsibility for ABNJ, and the current regulation and institutional arrangements, with the exception of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are sectoral in nature. Thus the decision by the United Nations General Assembly in resolution 69/292 to establish a preparatory committee to provide the Assembly with recommendations on the elements of a draft text of an international legally binding instrument under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of ABNJ presents an opportunity to greatly improve ocean governance.
While there is general agreement in international policy that an ecosystem approach is needed to improve ocean governance, its application in practice is still limited. This is due in large part to the considerable practical difficulties of implementation, including the availability of suitable information and lack of analytical and scientific tools to support the process. It may also be due, in part, to a limited understanding of what exactly constitutes an ecosystem approach, including its provisions for the broad participation of all stakeholders. Many different ecosystem approaches exist and include those used by the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which are highly compatible. In practice, some of the most widely implemented ecosystem approaches include integrated coastal zone management, sometimes referred to as integrated coastal area management, and integrated water resources management, sometimes expressed as river basin management. While not formally called ‘ecosystem approaches’, they espouse the use of a whole or integrated system as the base layer for all planning and management. In addition, many indigenous management systems embody a holistic view of the connections between all living things and their environment, and are thus also an expression of an ecosystem approach.
Many tools and strategies can be used to apply an ecosystem approach to the management of human activities in ocean and coastal areas. These include bioregional classification, coherent systems of marine protected or managed areas, ocean zoning and fisheries management. Environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment ensure that proposed activities do not cause undue environmental degradation. Overall, a key challenge remains: integrating various management approaches undertaken by sectors into a comprehensive and cohesive plan with the ecosystem as its central framework. Marine spatial planning (MSP) is one approach that can help countries undertake this task, and it is gaining considerable popularity. MSP provides a way to integrate human activities without compromising conservation values. Similarly to integrated coastal zone management, it provides for operationalizing an ecosystem approach through a planning process involving all stakeholders. Through MSP, the stakeholders can put forward their vision for an area; identify where human activities (including offshore energy, shipping, fishing, aquaculture, tourism, mining and other activities) currently occur and where it might be desirable for them to take place in the future; and identify actual or potential conflicts between different oceans-related uses, as well as human activities and desired conservation outcomes. The resulting spatial plan can provide for sustainable use, while also conserving specific areas through marine protected areas (MPAs) and other appropriate measures in a manner that avoids potential conflicts.
In applying these approaches, it is important to keep in mind that the oceans are interconnected through the movement of water masses, the migration of species and the dispersal of larvae. While countries’ exclusive economic zones are legally separate entities from ABNJ, they are ecologically and biologically connected. Thus, applying governance in the context of an ecosystem approach will also need to take into account ecosystems and species that cross political boundaries. This approach will benefit not only fisheries resources and migratory species, but also coastal communities, particularly in developing countries, for which these species and ecosystems have economic, social and cultural significance.
Any solutions that seek to improve the governance of an interconnected ocean need to include two components: (i) they will need to support and build upon well-functioning coastal systems of management already undertaken by communities, which may include traditional marine management systems of indigenous peoples and local communities based fully or in part on traditional knowledge; and (ii) they will need to provide for the protection and improved management of economically, socially and culturally important species and their habitats in areas beyond national jurisdiction by addressing both single and cumulative threats, and using tools such as by-catch prevention, effective fisheries management and avoidance of ship strikes, as well as new, dynamic techniques for MPAs and other area-based management.
There are also many lessons that could be learned from coastal management and the efforts of coastal communities, which are transferable and could benefit the management of human activities in ocean ecosystems everywhere. They include developing mechanisms to achieve effective coordination and collaboration between sectoral institutions and levels of government; building trust and facilitating stakeholder participation in a way that ensures that everyone’s voice is heard, even the voices of those who do not generally participate in management processes; and integrating the best available science, including traditional knowledge, into management, particularly in situations where the science is incomplete. These lessons also include ways in which the costs and benefits of conservation and management are equitably shared, so that coastal communities are not made to bear a disproportionate burden when, for example, an MPA is established.
Sustainable Development Goal 14, with its comprehensive set of targets, provides an opportunity to bring ocean governance to the forefront of the global dialogue on sustainable development. It is not only an opportunity for a rich exchange of ideas, but also for bringing together ocean stakeholders and agreeing on a new road map for improved ocean governance that can benefit ecosystems as well as people and their livelihoods. To achieve this, a new sense of stewardship for the oceans is needed, one supported by the application of a holistic, integrated ecosystem approach to the management of all human activities impacting oceans.
Author bio: Marjo Vierros is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. Her work focuses on Coastal Policy and Humanities Research.