12 February 2013, 14:56

Global Ocean commission set to sustain high seas fishing

Global Ocean commission set to sustain high seas fishing
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Tomorrow sees the launch of the Global Ocean Commission - a body set up to advise the United Nations on how to conserve the world's declining fisheries and ocean resources. The Forum Chairman will be the former Costa Rican president Jose Figueres and co-chaired by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. VoR correspondent asked the author and oceanographer Professor Callum Roberts from the University of York why the Global Oceans Commission was needed.

Tomorrow sees the launch of the Global Ocean Commission - a body set up to advise the United Nations on how to conserve the world's declining fisheries and ocean resources. The Forum Chairman will be the former Costa Rican president Jose Figueres and co-chaired by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

I asked the author and oceanographer Professor Callum Roberts from the University of York why the Global Oceans Commission was needed.

“The High Seas have come under the jurisdiction of the U.N. and the governing instrument is the U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was designed in the 1970. And because of that full exploitation is expected, there’s no provision for any sort of protected areas. There’re provisions in it that make sure that you don’t impact the environment as you exploit, but very little of the lip service paid to that. The position now is such that people are beginning to think that High Seas are getting critical. Many of the tuna dots are overfished. And there, among the more resilient of the stocks on the High Seas – some sharks have been exploited to almost to the point of disappearance. The collateral damage is enormous, in terms of things like albatrosses and marine mammals and turtles, that are being caught as the result of the fishing operations.”

And the basic problem for those who don’t follow these matters that once in the High Seas pretty much any ship from anywhere can fish in anyway it chooses to make a profit.

“Well, it can, but there’re certain limitations. If the country whose flag you’re flying is a signatory to some of the regional fisheries management body, then you have to fish according to their rules. In the North-East Atlantic, for example, their presiding body, whose authority comes from the U.N., is the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. If the country that you’re from is a signatory to that organization, then you’re bound by their rules. There’re two problems with this. One is that the rules are fairly weak, in the first place. The other is that you can opt to fly a flag of the country that isn’t a signatory, and then you can do what you like in that area and that’s not illegal.”

This new Global Ocean Commission, as it’s calling itself, they state that they want to advise the U.N., they acknowledged that three quarters of world fish stock are currently being either overfished or fished to the maximum that can be tolerated. There’re some quite heavyweight people involved – David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary co-chairing it, former Head of State of Costa Rica as the Chair Person and President, South-Africans, Australians, Indonesians, Nigerians, Canadians… But at the end of the day it’s called a commission and it’s got the word “global” in the title. How realistic is it to get international agreement on matters like fishing, which has been notoriously contentious?

“I think it’s going to be difficult. It’s difficult to get the U.N. to agree to even the most obvious humanitarian concerns. I think it’s possible, it’s in everyone’s interests to fish the High Seas sustainably – there would be more for all if we were each to take what is actually sustainable. So I think we need a commission to bring these matters to the high level, where something can be done about it. There’ve been a lot of people making a lot of noise across the world at the moment about how we need change, but that has failed so far to make real inroad into shaping U.N. policy on the oceans.”

There’s also presumably the danger that this could result in another opinion-forming body, another layer of bureaucracy which will not actually produce new laws or enforce existing rules.

Well, I think there won’t be another layer of bureaucracy within the system, because this commission will sit outside the system and chip in ideas from the outside. So my view is that their role is going to be most effective, if they look at the problems that exist on the High Seas and try to identify workable solution that are going to work both biologically and politically. And I think the political feasibility is absolutely vital in this.

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