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Towards a more sustainable use of our oceans in practice

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Context - Oceans provide us with a veriety of services, from fish stocks to the absorbtion of carbon dioxide.

How can we ensure that the sustainable use of the services and resouces that the oceans offer ?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2015 by The World Ocean Review (WOR): " World Ocean Review – Sustainable Use of Our Oceans – Making Ideas Work" 

  • Source document:WOR (2015)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts

What is the aim of the World Ocean Review?

The World Ocean Review attempts, through strategies to be implemented by policy-makers, individuals, businesses and institutions, to build a bridge between the theory of sustainability and its practical application in science and policy-making.

What is the concept of « strong sustainability »?

Sustainability is somewhat imprecise but basicaly it is using natural resources mindfully. Strong sustainability promotes the idea that renewable natural assets, such as fish stocks, can be exploited – but only to an extent that allows them to fully regenerate. Non-regenerative resources such as oil, with all their negative impacts, should therefore be replaced with renewables. Strong sustainability also calls for the restoration of depleted natural assets. This is dependent on the development of appropriate policy measures.

What is meant by « ecosystem services »?

Ecosystem services are the benefits that ecosystems can provide. The concept has replaced in recent years the notion of “natural capital”. In relation to the marine environment, these include:

  • Provisioning services : fish stocks, shipping lanes, which nature provides free of charge.
  • Supporting services : primary production, which is the most important through the accumulation of biomass from phytoplankton through photosynthesis.
  • Regulating services : basic biological, chemical and physical processes such as the absorption of carbon dioxide.
  • Cultural services : tourism, but also traditions associated with the sea.

Today, many of these services are at risk from pollution and climate change, but also from their overexploitation.

What is the human impact on marine coastal regions?

The physical destruction of coastal habitats is a consequence of development, construction of embankments and discharge of pollutants. As a result, wetlands, salt meadows, sand and mudflats, coral reefs and mangrove forests are particularly at risk. According to the United Nations, about 2.8 billion people now live in coastal cities, resulting in a high level of use and severe pollution of coastal waters, which can lead to eutrophication, algal blooms and oxygen depletion in seawater.

How to achieve more sustainable use of marine habitats?

A first step is to evaluate the current status of these habitats, before targeted measures to improve them can be implemented through methods, which include environmental factors such as biodiversity, but also socio-economic criteria, as this is the case for the global Ocean Health Index (OHI) or, in Europe, the targets defined in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

It is then up to all stakeholders, including policy-makers to act. However, currently, the multitude of relevant institutions only act on their specific sector, and they should be coordinated in an integrated approach.

Why are there only few examples of genuinely well-functioning regional ocean governance?

This can be due to both the sheer number of agreements, the problems caused by vested interests and corruption and, not least, the lack of cooperation among the countries concerned. Efforts to protect the marine environment along Africa’s Atlantic coast between Mauritania and South Africa, for example, were abandoned shortly after the Abidjan Convention, which entered into force in 1984.

What makes difficult to develop and implement programmes for the more sustainable management of the marine environment?

The distinction currently made between the sovereign territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone, in which a coastal state has exclusive rights to exploit the natural resources and fish stocks, and the high seas (international waters) makes it difficult the establishment of protected areas in international waters in the law of the sea. The high seas is thus poorly regulated and offers a multitude of freedoms with few restrictions, with every state having a right of access.

Some coastal states have established protected areas in their national waters, but no such arrangements currently exist to protect an international sea area from top to bottom.

Are there examples of well-functioning ocean governance?

There are indeed well-functioning ocean governance such as the system of Port State Control (PSC), which monitors compliance with specific UN conventions. It allows national port authorities to detain a ship if it fails to comply with the provisions of the relevant international conventions.

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) decision to impose more stringent limits on exhaust gas from ships and the commercial whaling moratorium of 1986 are other positive examples.

How was the fishing exploitation regulated in Europe?

With the European Union’s new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), fishing in the EU will be based on maximum sustainable yield (MSY). The MSY is the maximum catch that can be taken from a species’ stock over an indefinite period without jeopardizing that stock’s productivity. The aim is to regulate fishing in a way, which allows fish stocks to recover, enabling them to be fished at an optimal level in the future. Although discussions on how the new fisheries policy should be implemented day-to-day are still ongoing, a start has been made.

How, in practice, protect more effectively the marine environment?

A well-informed public that has a good understanding of the marine environment can exert the necessary pressure to bring about policy changes and a better coordination between its conservation and its diverse economic or other uses. This capacity building is now enshrined in the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global sustainability agenda for the years up to 2030 with marine conservation, is for the first time, a key global goal.

What role do scientists play in this matter?

In many cases, scientists can already make recommendations on how the marine environment can be better protected and used more sustainably. Nonetheless, there are still too many vested interests, especially in the economic sphere, and short-sighted, short-term profit maximization often takes priority. Furthermore, the political structures in many coastal states are still too inefficient to protect these states’ own marine resources and thus safeguard a sustainable future for our oceans.


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