There is nothing as relaxing to me as the sound of waves. (Real waves – not New Age CDs with wave sounds, mind you). But when I stand by the oceans these days, I can't relax entirely. I cannot but think of the wild west exploitation "out there" that is destroying the livelihoods of small-scale fisherpeople, fish stocks and global biodiversity.
Thirty years ago 119 governments came together in an attempt to start end this destruction. In Jamaica they agreed what many called a "constitution for the oceans" – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). To this day, as David Milliband argued this week, "UNCLOS is a symbol of global cooperation, compromise, and international law... But UNCLOS will need to evolve if it is to meet twenty-first-century challenges."
The oceans constitution covers both the rights and responsibilities of States operating on the high seas - the global commons that cover over half the Earth's surface. Looking back over the past 30 years, however, governments have succeeded in exercising their right to exploit the ocean but have not taking responsibility to protect it. Specific rules have been put in place under UNCLOS for governments and corporations to enable fishing, drilling and mining, but not to deliver conservation. In particular, there is still no agreed mechanism to create Sanctuaries at Sea - putting areas off limits to exploitation – for the High Seas or to apply environmental impact assessments to ensure activities do not do damage.
Though the number of countries supporting UNCLOS has risen to 164, the gaps in ocean protection today remain shockingly large. The percentage of high seas areas that are protected is pitiful – remaining stuck at below 1%. Meanwhile, advances in technology have enabled humans to reach ever more distant and deeper waters. Areas that were once unreachable and acted as de facto Sacturies at Sea (marine reserves) are now starting to be explored and exploited.
The melting of the ice in the Arctic, for example, has seen oil firms and finishing fleets moving in, cynically abusing the devastating impacts of climate change as a business opportunity. Corporate interest in deep seabed mining, once the subject of science fiction, is also becoming a reality. In the last few years, the number of exploration licenses issued have increased significantly.
Instead of continuing this plunder, now is the time to evolve the constitution of the sea. Governments need to finally put in place globally agreed rules for protecting the High Seas. The good news is, that many governments are already calling for an agreement to end the wild west exploitation of the High Seas (through an UNCLOS implementing agreement). Brazil, Mexico, India, the European Union and South Africa are some of the champions of bringing UNCLOS into the 21st century. Indeed, at the Rio+20 Conference this summer, the vast majority of governments wanted to launch negotiations for the UNCLOS agreement required. They were blocked by an unholy alliance of United States, Venezuela, Russia and Canada who selfishly put their fishing, mining and fossil fuel industry interests first. What they could not prevent, however, was Rio+20 agreeing a deadline for a decision to be taken by 2014. Some, encouragingly, don't want to wait that long. The French Minister of Environment, Delphine Batho, for example recently urged governments to launch negotiations for protecting the High Seas in 2013 already. That's the right way to celebrate 30 years of the constitution of the Seas. Now is the time to make UNCLOS truly count for the Oceans.
Listening to the waves as I walk along the Pacific in Hong Kong, I am angered by 30 years of the constitution of the sea not having been enough to allow me to enjoy the relaxing force of this truly stunning phenomenon of nature. Today, to me, the sound of the waves is really a call for action.