Protecting the High Seas: Dr Sylvia Earle urges UN to take action

Renowned marine biologist and environmental activist Dr Sylvia Earle addressed the United Nations in New York on Tuesday urging the body to to take action and implement an agreement that would bring law and order to the High Seas (International Waters). The high seas is a vast area that makes up nearly two-thirds of our ocean and about 50% of our planet’s surface. However, it currently falls outside of any country’s national jurisdiction, making it the largest unprotected and lawless region on Earth. With the vast majority of our oceans being the high seas, it is responsible for providing the earth with the majority of it’s oxygen, driving our weather systems, regulating our climate, providing us with essential nutrition and we are only beginning to explore the potential for marine species to contribute to life-giving medicines and other purposes. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the ocean is bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change, having absorbed approximately 30% of the CO2 and over 80% of the additional heat we have generated since the Industrial Revolution (1). The High Seas Alliance, who Dr Earle worked with for this campaign, is a partnership of organisations and groups aimed at building a strong common voice and constituency for the conservation of the high seas. The primary objective of the Alliance is to facilitate international cooperation to establish high seas protected areas and to strengthen high seas governance.

Dr Earle addressed the UN on tuesday in a speech focusing on the children of planet Earth and the responsibility we have to them in protecting the oceans:

“Thank you,  Co-Chairs, for the privilege of speaking officially on behalf of Mission Blue, and unofficially, for those who cannot speak for themselves – the children of today and for  all of those in the future – our descendants who will from their place in the future either applaud or condemn our actions – or lack of actions –concerning establishing governance –    a strong and meaningful implementing agreement under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) for biodiversity of half the world, the high seas – the ocean beyond national jurisdiction.  Of course existing agreements must be respected. But is clear that the present framework has not and cannot address circumstances that are now a new reality 

The United Nations came into existence in 1945. I personally came into existence ten years earlier, and as a child was barely aware of the historic actions then being addressed by my species. The ten year olds of today are more likely to be tuned in to the significance of the actions being deliberated here. They – and we – are armed with access to unprecedented knowledge, information that did not exist when I was a child.

In less than half a century. we have come to understand what  our predecessors could not –  the living ocean – the living ocean —  drives climate and weather, generates most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, takes up much of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, holds 97 % of Earth’s water and embraces 97% of the biosphere.  Now we know. Humankind is altering the nature of the ocean and therefore,  the nature of nature,  through what we are putting in and through what we are taking out  of the sea. The ocean is large and resilient, but it is not too big to fail. What we are taking out of the sea, what we are putting into the sea are actions that are undermining the most important thing the ocean delivers to humankind. – our very existence.

The new reports  this week in Science, NY Times, and the Economist are among many reports of the evidence concerning the drastic reduction in the quantity and diversity of marine systems in recent decades, and raise real concerns about the consequences to humankind of these impacts  There is a direct  link between life in the ocean and resilience to the impacts of  a warming planet, acidification of the sea,  dismemberment of the global ocean systems of life, to a planet that works in our favor. All of humankind relies on the ocean for everything we care about – prosperity, health, security – our very existence.  No ocean, no life.  No blue, no green. No ocean, no us.  An ocean in trouble means civilisation in trouble.  The highest priority for humankind is to keep the world safe for our children.  To do so means taking care of the natural ocean systems that make life possible. 

The status quo is not adequate and is not acceptable. It is high time for the High Seas, the blue half of the world,  to be recognised as the blue heart of the planet, the cornerstone of Earth’s life support system, the vast but vulnerable part of the planet that until recent decades has not only been beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, but also beyond the reach of the ability of humans to effectively exploit it for short term gain.

We have an opportunity – right now – to fill the gaps in governance of half of the world, the blue half that has a disproportionate role in maintaining Earth as a planet hospitable for life as we know it.  Armed with new knowledge, we have a chance, right now, this week, to encourage  governance to safeguard the high seas  – as never before in history.  And maybe, as never again.

The ten year olds are watching.”

At this moment in time, less than 1% of the high seas are marine protected areas (MPAs), while, even including coastal zones and areas within exclusive economic zones (EEZs – a sea zone that a state has been prescribed special rights to regarding the exploration and use of marine resources), only 2% of the global ocean is protected. Under UNCLOS, there is no global framework of rules for protecting the biodiversity of the high seas and to quote the High Seas Alliance: ‘The Law of the Sea urgently needs to extend further and deeper, to catch up with the pace of human technology and exploitation before the high seas suffer even greater irrevocable damage.’

This is crucial that new laws for governing the high seas are established with an emphasis on  protection from anthropogenic threats, conservation and restoration of marine ecosystems and biodiversity to preserve this vast and immensely important area of our planet. Otherwise it is very likely that younger generations will have to face the consequences of our inaction in the not too distant future.

To find out more information regarding governance of the high seas visit the High Seas Alliance website and follow Dr Sylvia Earle on Twitter for further updates.

– JK


Mission Blue –

High Seas Alliance –

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