Ocean Geopolitics: Challenges for Sustainable Management of the Blue Planet


3 February 2014

Ocean Geopolitics: Challenges for Sustainable Management of the Blue Planet

For a long time, people believed that the ocean was infinite, or at least so big that it could absorb all our pollution – organic and industrial – and that the impact of human activities at sea would not be significant enough to threaten marine ecosystems. But with the population explosion and the rapid growth of human activities at sea, the ocean is increasingly impacted and marine ecosystems affected by various types of pollution, acidification, overfishing, and accidents involving offshore oil platforms. These problems are accumulating and their consequences are not well known to science.

What about solutions? Even if they exist, we must all agree to apply them. In a world in crisis, with conflicting poles of interest, each country wants to have its say and exploit the resources within its reach.

In this new arena – geopolitics of the ocean – tough negotiations are taking place that involve multilateral organizations little known to the public. Examples include: the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea; the DG-MARE (Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of the European Commission); the Arctic Council; and the various regional fisheries management organizations. These institutions are currently dealing with important issues concerning our planet, such as the management of the Arctic, management of fishing quotas, and international governance of the High Seas. Tara Expeditions – with its unique position promoting research, education and public awareness – also takes concrete action to encourage decision makers in working towards sustainable management of the oceans. Here is a brief review of the issues that should become familiar to everyone, because they are vital for our future:

Governance of the High Seas: we must sustainably manage these vast spaces that represent almost 50% of the planet

More than 50 years ago, an historic moment for international diplomacy occurred when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted, with the goal of establishing a common legal basis for international management of maritime areas. Half a century later, this agreement – which regulates maritime traffic and exploitation of the seabed – needs to be revised to include activities related to marine biodiversity in High Seas. Easy to say, but very difficult to accomplish. The project to establish a legal instrument regulating the resources of marine biodiversity has advanced slowly for the past ten years. Several countries are desperately blocking the creation of any binding agreement that would limit the profits of their national industries.

In April 2013, Tara Expeditions – in collaboration with the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (ESEC) and several other partners – launched the Paris Appeal for the High Seas. Our goal is to mobilize forces and get a million signatures by 2015, when the General Assembly of the United Nations will vote on this historic agreement. You can sign the Appeal for the High Seas here:  lahautemer.org

Arctic geopolitics: “Neither Eldorado nor sanctuary.” We must move towards rational, international management of the Arctic

With climate change and the melting of polar ice, exploitation of riches in the Arctic has become a burning issue: New trade routes, projects to exploit offshore oil, the explosion of tourism in Greenland, intensive fishing in the North Sea –  “The more it melts, the faster we go!” But how can the fragile Arctic marine ecosystem survive these new activities with high environmental impact? Once again answers exist, but we lack the political space necessary to implement solutions advocated by researchers and experts. The Arctic Council – the group of countries bordering the Arctic – is responsible for proposing a system of shared governance. But confronted with the economic ambitions of each country in the region, they are having great difficulty moving forward.

Responsible management of fisheries : a political problem that often concerns the most vulnerable populations

Management of fish stocks is now a major geopolitical issue that leads to passionate struggles, sometimes violent, between fishermen and advocates for endangered species like whales or sharks. But beyond extreme reactions and spectacular actions, there is a vast, less visible political terrain where the yearly “allowed takes” are negotiated. These international negotiations are a real political headache for various regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) created under the auspices of the UN to fight against the extinction of species. Faced with the dramatic population decline of some species such as cod and blue-fin tuna, experts and diplomats meet annually within these organizations to determine the amount of catch authorized for each species. These negotiations are often harsh and generally oppose countries prone to an “environmentalist” position, and other countries defending their industrial interests. Each group brandishes different numbers and arguments for or against the fishing of a particular species.

The creation and management of Marine Protected Areas, a key tool for protecting the most sensitive species

The scientific community is beginning to emphasize the impact of human activities on the ocean, particularly serious in certain regions important for marine biodiversity. These areas – usually breeding grounds for species, coral reefs, or areas of ocean current “resurgence” – are given priority according to scientific criteria, in an effort to limit high impact activities on marine ecosystems. In 1985, 430 areas of conservation existed – with varying status, but generally named “Marine Protected Areas.” The number has grown rapidly in recent decades, reaching 5,880 in 2010. Despite the “explosion” of Marine Protected Areas, their totality does not even cover 1% of the ocean, whereas protected terrestrial regions already constitute 10% on land. Recently, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has set the goal of covering 10% of the ocean with Protected Marine Areas by 2020. But on the way to achieving this ambition are several limitations and roadblocks, particularly issues related to fishing and exploitation of mineral resources in these places.

The schooner Tara will depart for an expedition in the Mediterranean this year, and will focus attention on issues related to Marine Protected Areas, in partnership with the MEDPAM, the network of MPAs in the Mediterranean.

André Abreu, Chargé de Mission for Tara Expeditions