Opinion: For a small country surrounded by vast oceans, we seem quite indifferent to their infinite potential and the great responsibility for looking after them.
Yes, we have a fisheries management system. But that is species specific and it’s fraught with problems, as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, reported in 2021 (and which I covered in a Newsroom column).
Worse, that system has nothing to do with understanding and protecting the vast complexities of oceanic ecosystems for which we are responsible.
Likewise, our marine regulatory systems are largely focused close to shore. We still lack a coherent set of oceanic policies, even though we have one of the larger Exclusive Economic Zones (a jurisdiction reaching out 200 nautical miles from our coasts and islands) on the planet.
Rather than embrace the abundance and richness of our oceans, we’ve largely focused our efforts – economically and politically – on our land. And we’re well aware of the huge pressures on us to do that much better for climate, ecosystem restoration, sustainability and economic benefits.
But agreement last month by the nations of the world on the High Seas Treaty will hopefully spur us to far greater involvement in them. After almost two decades of fraught and painstaking negotiations, it aims to bring some protection and good practice to the high seas beyond economic zones and other national jurisdictions.
Almost two-thirds of the oceans lie outside national jurisdictions. Currently only about 1 percent of that area is regulated so, for example, some two-thirds of oceanic fish stocks are over-exploited
Remarkably, the open ocean covers three quarters of the Earth’s surface. It helps regulate and sustain planetary systems on which all living things depend for our existence. For example, each year it sucks in about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions generated by human activity.
We humans also use the open ocean to generate US$2 trillion of economic activity each year through fishing, shipping, and tourism.
But almost two-thirds of the oceans lie outside national jurisdictions. Currently only about 1 percent of that area is regulated so, for example, some two-thirds of oceanic fish stocks are over-exploited, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates. About 70 percent of tuna is caught in the high seas, the currently non-regulated area of oceans.
Signatories to the new treaty are committing to carry out environmental assessments of potentially harmful activities such as deep-sea mining; to share with each other scientific research and environmental monitoring; and to develop rules governing the share of profits derived from “marine genetic resources”. These substances from ocean plants and animals are used by pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies.
Lisa Speer, director of the US’s Natural Resources Defense Council’s International Oceans, who was part of the UN negotiating team for the new treaty, said that ensuring those resources will be shared in a fair and equitable way was a major point of tension in the negotiations for many years.
“Who gets to decide what happens in this global commons was a fundamental issue on the table during the negotiations,” she said.
Shipping, fishing, tourism and other industries should not fear the new protected zones or a more rigorous environmental impact assessment process, said Simon Walmsley, marine chief advisor at WWF-UK.
The current Labour government has made only partial progress on some ocean policy issues. And this vast and crucial subject ranks even lower in National’s policy priorities
But those seeking to deep sea mine will be affected. “We need a moratorium on everything until we have some data and some kind of baseline on impacts.”
The High Ambition Coalition on climate, including the UK, EU, US and China, helped push through the High Seas Treaty, with support from the Small Island Developing States. The goal is to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030, to complement the similar goal of “30×30” for the planet’s lands.
The twin goals were agreed at the UN’s biodiversity summit last December. Both are vital for giving nature a chance to recover and to play its part in helping us solve the climate crisis.
Our government welcomed the treaty. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said: “Our connection to the ocean is a fundamental part of what makes us New Zealanders, as is the seriousness with which we take our kaitiaki responsibilities. This agreement is a reflection of those values at a global scale and I am proud of the role that Aotearoa New Zealand played to reach this success.”
But the reality is New Zealand is a laggard on creating Marine Protected Areas, even though the Environmental Defence Society has generated extensive research on that and many other crucial aspects of marine policy.
As my Newsroom colleague Marc Daalder reported in January the current Labour government has made only partial progress on some ocean policy issues. And this vast and crucial subject ranks even lower in National’s policy priorities.
Given the huge importance of the oceans to our wellbeing, and the escalating risk that some other nations could seek to exploit the areas of oceans for which we’re responsible, we need to urgently elevate oceans in our national discourse and political processes.