International ocean governance: can the EU take the lead?

Proper ocean management is necessary to sustain life. Photo: Yan Renucci/Flickr
Proper ocean management is necessary to sustain life. Photo: Yan Renucci/Flickr

The more we learn about oceans, the more we realise how important they are for our wellbeing. Our life depends on the benefits that oceans provide, which vary from food, energy and minerals to climate regulation and recreational services. WWF estimates the overall value of ocean “gross marine product” at US$ 24 trillion (about 22.6 trillion euros).

Despite their obvious benefits, oceans are facing multiple pressures, including overexploitation of fish stocks, pollution, climate change and ecosystem degradation, which are jeopardising the provision of these important services.

Oceans sustainability relies on the management of its different uses. Ocean waters under national territories of various countries have a “responsible guardian”. But what happens to the 60% of ocean waters that are “free to all nations, but belonging to none of them”? There is need for a stronger international management regime which will balance the use of ocean resources with the conservation needs of marine ecosystems.

This is where the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – an international framework adopted more than 30 years ago to manage shared resources – should come into play. But it is currently failing to protect marine biodiversity in international waters against modern pressures and ensure the sustainable use of marine ecosystems.

In the EU, the European Commission is trying to push its “Blue Growth” vision while developing its role in international ocean governance. However, the Commission’s views are limiting ocean governance to the management of resources, which emphasises its economic aspects instead of the “conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity” as identified in the request to revise UNCLOS.

The Commission also needs to focus on marine spatial planning. If we want to maintain the services that oceans provide, all the different sea uses must be managed according to a plan which takes into account the marine ecosystem as a whole and assesses the cumulative impact of different activities (ecosystem-based approach).

But can the EU take the lead on the development of the international ocean governance framework while implementing an integrated spatial marine planning in its own waters? How will it be able to encourage the conservation of global marine biodiversity, when EU fish stocks are overexploited and important seabirds and marine mammals die every day in European waters as a result of bycatch?

We support the development of a new and more protective ocean governance framework but we believe that it is crucial for the EU to also tackle some important issues at home.

Stavros Antoniadis, Policy intern, BirdLife Europe

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