Global Ocean Commission Charts Course for High Seas Recovery

GarbageShoreCovering nearly 75 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean is the single largest ecosystem on the planet. From influencing weather patterns and climate trends and providing food, essential nutrition, livelihoods and recreation for billions to supplying the oxygen we breathe, it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the ocean on the development, evolution and maintenance of life and human civilization.

Unfortunately, the health of the global ocean is in decline. “Habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, overfishing, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification are pushing the ocean system to the point of collapse,” according to an introductory letter from the co-chairs of the Global Ocean Commission.

“Governance is woefully inadequate, and on the high seas, anarchy rules the waves. Technological advance, combined with a lack of regulation, is widening the gap between rich and poor as those countries that can, exploit dwindling resources while those that can’t experience the consequences of those actions. Regional stability, food security, climate resilience, and our children’s future are all under threat.”

In “From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean,” the Global Ocean Commission Report 2014 puts forth a package of eight proposals that it believes can turn the tide and reverse the degradation of the global ocean within the next decade. That’s if the proposals are “expeditiously acted upon,” which is why the commission is also issuing “Mission Ocean,” a call to action for public and private sector leaders and concerned individuals the world over.

High seas in decline

The Global Ocean Commission doesn’t pull any punches when describing the current state of the global ocean. As Commission co-chairs José Maria Figueres, Trevor Manuel and David Miliband state: “The ocean is under threat, and humanity’s approach to it is uncontrolled.

“Benign neglect by the majority, and active abuse by the minority, have fueled a cycle of decline. No single body shoulders responsibility for ocean health, and an absence of accountability is characterized by blind exploitation of resources and a willful lack of care. We call this the cycle of decline.”

The focal point of the 2014 Global Ocean Commission report is the high seas – the 64 percent of the global ocean that falls outside statutory 200-nautical mile national boundaries.

“Almost inconceivably large and remote,” the open ocean, the report authors highlight, “is the great physical and biological pump at the heart of the global atmospheric and thermal regulation and the driver of water and nutrient cycles” that support all life on earth.”

Putting an economic value on the high seas

Natural capital accounting is in its infancy, and we as a species still have much to learn about the world ocean and the wide range of ecosystem services it provides humankind. In seeking to come up with an estimate of the economic value of the high seas ecosystem, the report authors note that they are, if anything, undervalued.

Following is a list of the high seas ecosystems services identified in the report:

  • Air purification;
  • Waste treatment and life cycle maintenance;
  • High seas carbon capture and storage;
  • High seas provisioning of fish and other seafood;
  • Genetic and ornamental resources;
  • Tourism, leisure and recreation.

The economic value of high seas carbon storage and fisheries


Commission researchers have come up with estimates of the economic value of two key high seas ecosystem services: carbon storage and fisheries. Each, according to the report, generates tens of billions of dollars of value to societies every year.

The global ocean and highs seas provide human societies with a wide range of fundamental ecosystem services. That includes the central role it plays in determining weather patterns and climate. As the Global Ocean Commission report authors state:

“The global ocean produces almost half of all the oxygen we breathe and absorbs more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere. More than 90% of the heat trapped in the Earth system by greenhouse gas emissions is stored in the ocean, providing a buffer against the full impacts of climate change on land; however, this is having alarming consequences on ocean life and is perhaps the largest unseen environmental disaster of our time.”

Storing the equivalent of some 2 billion-plus metric tons of CO2 annually, commission researchers estimate the value of high seas carbon storage at $148 billion a year, ranging from $74 billion to $222 billion annually. “By comparison,” the report authors note, “the entire Official Development Aid outlay for 2013 was $134.8 billion.”

Turning to the economic value of high seas fisheries, commission researchers found that nearly 10 million metric tons of fish are caught annually on the high seas – just over 12 percent of the global annual marine fisheries catch, which stands at 80 million metric tons. The estimated landed value comes in at around $16 billion, about 15 percent of the total landed value of marine fisheries of around $109 billion.


3p has been doing some extensive, in-depth reporting on sustainable seafood. You can check it out here.

The need for international high seas governance

Its inaccessibility essentially left the high seas an international marine reserve – until about the middle of the 20th century, that is. Technological advances and the advent of factory fishing fleets have pushed high seas ecosystems into decline, while the rise of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is changing ocean chemistry and threatening the entire marine food web.


In its 2014 report, the Global Ocean Commission identifies five key drivers of high seas ocean decline:

  1. Rising demand for resources;
  2. Technological advances;
  3. Decline of fish stocks;
  4. Climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss;
  5. Weak High Seas governance;

The commission then goes on to elaborate eight proposals that can put the high seas on the path to recovery:

  1. U.N. Sustainable Development Goal for the Ocean – Putting a healthy living ocean at the heart of development;
  2. Governing the High Seas – Promoting care and recovery;
  3. No More Overfishing – Ending harmful high seas subsidies;
  4. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing – closing seas, ports and markets;
  5. Plastics – Keeping them out of the ocean;
  6. Offshore oil and gas – Establishing international safety standards and liability;
  7. Global ocean accountability Board charged with monitoring progress toward a ealthy ocean;
  8. Creating a High Seas Regeneration Zone.


A new system of international environmental governance for the high seas is essential if the high seas are to recover, the Commission asserts. As they point out, the 200 nautical mile limit established with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an abstract, human legal construct “with little bearing on ecological reality.” “Fish, coral reefs, pollution and the detrimental impacts of climate change do not respect the 200 nautical mile frontier of State jurisdiction,” the reports authors continue.

As they make clear, the Global Ocean Commission is well aware of the difficulty of the task.

“The task of saving the global ocean is one that no government or company or individual can achieve alone. Stopping the abusive and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and freedoms, and restoring ocean health, requires a coalition for change with a clear mission.

“We are convinced that if the package of eight proposals that we now put forward is expeditiously acted upon, it is possible, within the next decade, to reverse the degradation of the global ocean.

“The high seas are facing a cycle of declining ecosystem health and productivity. It is our joint responsibility to act urgently and decisively to reverse the decline of this immense global commons. Failure to do so would be an unforgivable betrayal of current and future generations.”

Image credits: Global Ocean Commission

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One response

  1. Good luck with this one. First, the enforcement would require a U.N. Navy at least the size of the U.S. Navy. None of the large sea faring countries will allow that to occur.

    The Ocean is .1 less Basic, well within natural variability and the base of the marine food chain, phytoplankton, are benefitting greatly . ALL current marine species evolved in and have repeatedly adapted to much warmer seas and higher Co2.

    Countries with high reliance on sea food will simply not sign on to this. Developing countries will continue to increase Co2 emissions. China and India emissions alone exceed those of the U.S. by 70% and climbing.

    In short, this is a pipe dream.

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