Oceans in grave danger: Poor governance threatens one of the planet’s most vital ecosystems

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Our seas are under threat from pollution and other harmful practices, although they are an extremely important ecosystem. (Photo: Global Ocean Commission)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A report published by the Global Ocean Commission has highlighted the exceptional importance of protecting seas and oceans, especially the high seas, defined as the areas beyond national control, which constitute up to 70 percent of the oceans and seas.

Below, Al-Akhbar publishes some of the most important findings in the report.

First, the Global Ocean Commission proposes for the United Nations to specify a sustainable development goal for the ocean, and appoint a special representative for the ocean. The report also recommends amending and strengthening the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to promote ways to protect and conserve ecosystems in the high seas and ensure their sustainability. In addition, the Global Ocean Commission’s report calls for stopping overfishing in the high seas, and minimizing the use of plastics through direct government intervention and consumer incentives.

The report states that developing an international liability convention to cover damage to the marine environment from offshore oil and gas installations has become an urgent necessity, and that companies exploring for fossil fuels should be subject to a binding international agreement.

The report indicates that the industrial overexploitation of the high seas threatens the biodiversity of ecosystems in the high seas and ecosystem services. Mining and exploration for new sources of fossil fuels reinforce the industrialization of the high seas, which causes further damage to their ecosystems. Meanwhile, current frameworks for high seas governance are inadequate, with different international institutions focusing on different goals, certain industrial activities, or even specific places or parts of the ecosystem.

There is increasing evidence that ecosystem and ocean services are of a high social and economic value. According to the report, “evidence is clear: poor management of increasingly intensive human activities on the high seas has eroded the natural wealth and productivity of its ecosystems, with negative economic and social consequences.”

The report cites several vital services provided by ecosystems in the high seas, including resources such as fish and seafood; raw materials; genetic resources; medicinal resources; and ornamental resources; regulation services such as air purification, climate regulation; waste treatment, and biological control; habitat services like lifecycle maintenance; gene protection, and cultural services, such as tourism, leisure and recreation, and so on.

The report continues, “The high seas supports economically important organisms that may swim, migrate or drift well beyond its physical boundaries. This makes it difficult to disentangle the contribution of high seas ecosystems from the services that are produced in the high seas but are enjoyed elsewhere – sometimes thousands of kilometers away.”

The report assesses the value of these services, and includes them in the costs of failing to improve governance and the management of human activities on the high seas, with a particular focus on increasing protection for marine life. The report then gives estimates of the economic value of two vital services provided by ecosystems in the high seas: carbon storage and fisheries.

Carbon storage

According to the report, the ocean has been responsible for the capture and storage of more than half of the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels and a third of the total produced by humankind. This has reduced the rates of increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide and can slow changes in global temperature and other consequences associated with climate change.

The above occurs through both physical processes and biological processes. Physical processes include carbon dioxide dissolving in the ocean and then being transported to places where seawater sinks into the deep sea and away from the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years. Biological processes include the “fixation” of carbon by photosynthesis in the surface layers of the ocean by phytoplankton, which die and sink or are consumed by zooplankton and other organisms that eventually die and become particulate organic carbon, which is removed from the atmosphere.

According to the report’s estimates, the high seas fix around 49 percent, or about 23 billion tons out of about 47 billion tons of carbon fixed by phytoplankton. The amount of carbon captured and stored at depth can be estimated from measurements of fixed carbon (net primary production) and how it is consumed or decomposed by animals and microorganisms as it sinks.

Based on an estimate of the amount of carbon stored below 1,000m (i.e. 0.276 billion tons per year) and adding carbon exported through other biological mechanisms (i.e. including nitrification, the carbonate pump, and dissolved organic carbon), and accounting for a portion of the continental slope outside of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), the report gives a total figure for biological carbon capture and storage in the high seas of 0.448 billion tons of carbon annually.

Fisheries

The report analyzes the economic impacts of fisheries in the high seas, with a focus on the degree of “sharing” and interaction between fish stocks in the high seas and in EEZs. The report found that 42 percent of the global commercially important fish species analyzed are caught in both the high and coastal seas, and that less than 1 percent are caught exclusively on the high seas. The highly migratory and “straddling” stocks that occur in both the high seas and in EEZs account for 67 percent of the total global catch and 72 percent of the total landed value associated with global commercial fisheries, according to the report.

Meanwhile, a study recently published in PLOS Biology cited by the report predicts that closing the high seas completely to fishing would result in higher net economic benefits, relative to the current situation. It argues that by protecting fish stocks in the high seas, coastal nations would continue to benefit from the fisheries that depend on the high seas, but which can be caught in EEZs.

Regulating services

According to the report, it is recognized that the diversity of life, reflected in the ecological characteristics of living organisms of the seabed and water column, plays a fundamental role in the maintenance of regulating services. This is because a diversity of living organisms helps to control essential processes such as sedimentation, nutrient and gas cycling, and the formation of habitat.

One indication that the service of biological control has been altered, the report continues, may be found in the bloom of a particular species (e.g. jellyfish or algae). For example, it is thought that overfishing is capable, in some circumstances, of altering ecosystem structures to the point where biological controls cannot re-establish healthy food webs.

Habitats

The two habitat services likely to be important in the high seas: lifecycle maintenance and gene pool protection, are highly dependent on essential ecological processes. As a result, the report states, changes in any of the critical ecological characteristics can alter the ability of a habitat to support life. Such disruptions include changes in reproductive patterns and the development of juvenile migratory species. For example, declines in the productivity of a habitat used by migratory animals for breeding or for protection of juveniles may force these species to travel longer distances to find suitable alternative locations.

Useful services

The report underscores the fact that human activities drive changes in ecosystem health. Pollution, the transmission of invasive species, and direct habitat destruction (in the case of seafloor extraction) are detrimental to ecological health and ecosystem service values of the high seas, the report continues. The effects of climate change, especially increasing ocean temperatures, decreasing oxygen, and acidification all have the potential to alter the health of ecosystems and the value of ecosystem services, according to the Global Ocean Commission.


Many human activities that occur in the high seas have both positive and negative economic consequences. Some financially profitable activities in the high seas are independent of ecosystem health (e.g. shipping and mining of deep-seabed mineral resources). Nevertheless, such activities may directly and indirectly damage marine life and ecosystems in the high seas.

Other types of activities depend directly on ecosystem health, but the poor management of these activities results in damage to ecosystems. For instance, by reducing the productivity and resilience of fish stocks, overfishing has a direct impact on the ability of the high seas to produce seafood. Other impacts of fishing such as by-catch and the destruction of ecosystems and physical disturbance (e.g. generation of sediment plumes by bottom trawls) “can reduce stocks of other types of seafood, and affect life cycle maintenance, biological control, genetic and medicinal resources, and even climate regulation,” the report explains.

Conclusions

The report concludes that the high seas support at least 15 major categories of ecosystem services that are known to be important to human well being. These ecosystem services generate benefits that have demonstrable economic value. While few of the benefits stemming from these ecosystem services can be valued using current data, available data do show that in the case of just two of these ecosystem services (climate regulation and seafood) the benefits amount to tens to hundreds of billions of dollars of value to society annually.

High-seas marine ecosystem services are thought to generate far less value than could be possible because of uncontrolled and poorly managed human activities that damage the ecosystems. Better high seas management could stem the decline in the value of high seas ecosystem services, the report argues, and improve the resilience of high seas ecosystems, and even increase the overall value of these ecosystems and the services they produce.

Lebanon: Risk from waste on the retreat

There is no data on the amount of waste that has made its way from the Lebanese coast to the high seas. The most infamous landfills in the country, located in Tripoli, Burj Hammoud, and Saida, are home to thousands of tons of waste of which a large part has sunk to the seabed, while sea currents have scattered thousands of tons more to wide areas very far from the coast, all the way to European shores. In addition to landfills, wastewater outlets and industrial pollution exacerbate the threats to marine life in Lebanon and the Mediterranean.

The landfill in Saida was always the biggest marine pollution disaster, putting Lebanon on the list of countries polluting the Mediterranean. With the upgrade works expected to be completed in mid-2015, marine pollution resulting from household waste is expected to decline to record levels since the end of the Lebanese civil war, along with the direct risk to marine life and public health, given that household waste is a source of organic and chemical pollutants.

Now, with the development of the legal framework for oil and gas exploration, there have been questions about the environmental impact and the challenges associated to the potential discovery of oil and gas in Lebanon. The greatest danger lies in the event of a malfunction or leak during the exploration, extraction, refining, and transportation process, and the impact on the marine ecosystem in the Mediterranean.

The main conclusions

According to the Global Ocean Commission’s report, high-seas ecosystems are responsible for nearly half of the biological productivity of the global ocean, much more than previously thought.

The report indicates that the science of carbon sequestration in the high seas is still evolving, though it estimates that nearly half a billion tons of carbon, the equivalent of over 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide, are captured and stored by high seas ecosystems annually.

The value of carbon storage by high seas ecosystems ranges between $74 billion and $222 billion annually.

The high seas fix around 49 percent, or about 23 billion tons out of about 47 billion tons of carbon fixed by phytoplankton.

Nearly 10 million tons of fish are caught annually on the high seas, and this catch volume is worth more than $16 billion in gross landed value per year.

There is compelling evidence, even if it is incomplete, that the economic value of ecosystems in the high seas and related services is very large. These ecosystems generate market values ​​and values not circulated in the market, but they also contribute to the economic and social well being of humankind.

Improving the environmental management of the high seas faces many obstacles, however, because of the chronic tendency to undervalue the economic benefits that can be achieved if the health of ecosystems in the high seas is improved.

Follow Bassam al-Kantar: http://about.me/bassam.kantar

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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