After more than a decade of debate and discussion, the UN had a Christmas present for the planet.
On December 24, Mexico and New Zealand led a 140-nation resolution to protect the open oceans in a legally binding treaty that will, over the next 24 months, be negotiated under the Law of the Sea Convention. That Convention is a 1982 international agreement concerning who gets which fish, and where.
This new resolution recognizes that The Commons of the open sea must be protected not merely from the over-fishing that has decimated the entire food chain, but from the pollution of toxic agricultural runoff, tanker spills, deep sea mining, and the ubiquitous plastic debris that swirls through the water column in an eternity of harm.
The waters outside national maritime boundaries—which cover half the planet’s surface— are currently a free-for-all that has led to devastating overfishing and pollution—a rape of the very birthplace of all life.
“This is the biggest opportunity to change the status quo we have ever had,” Will McCallum, the head of oceans at Greenpeace, claimed. “It could change everything.”
This enthusiasm is shared by all the participants, including former European Union Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, who now works for The Nature Conservancy. She said, “This could be the most important step I have seen in my 30 years working on oceans.”
No countries, including the group of countries in the EU, presently have laws that protect the marine environment with enforcement and penalties for breaking those laws. There are “policies to develop strategies to achieve ‘good environmental status,’” according to last year’s EU Commission.
Canada’s Prime Minister has assigned $1.5 million to its Transport Ministry to improve shipping safety, but done nothing to protect marine life from that shipping.
Since 2011, extreme weather has flooded Queensland and toxic runoff from industrial agriculture and coal mining has been killing the Great Barrier Reef. Brazil, Florida and Sri Lanka have suffered similar flooding events that have had significant environmental and tragic human consequences. It is not going to get better. It is going to get much worse. We know that now.
As a result of this lack of care, half of all the species in the oceans have disappeared in the last thirty-five years. They are just gone. If you watch Blue, the latest documentary on the oceans, you will see the extent of the decimation: 73 million sharks killed every year in Indonesia alone, just for their dorsal fins; tuna sold at auction 30% smaller in size than ever before, and an informed estimate that there will be none in just two years; and a collection of 29,000 ghost nets enmeshing thousands of tons of dead marine life and plastic trash, much of it washing up on the empty beaches of Northern Australia, where the constant sand buries these mounds in a pristine graveyard.
Public awareness about the declining health of the oceans has increasingly been raised by environmental organizations and the media. Indeed, most of us in the western economies have seen the BBC series, Blue Planet, the late Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater, the Netflix doc Chasing Coral, Louie Psihoyos’ doc The Cove, Leo DiCaprio’s The Eleventh Hour, Wired’s doc A Plastic Tide, the Australian doc just released called, Blue, and many others. The UK’s Sky News will feature a Rainforest Rescue’s initiative in January, asking people to make lifestyle changes concerning their habits of using non-biodegradable plastics and microbeads.
The impact of this growing awareness is being felt at the product development level too. Since 2015, the German sportswear brand Adidas has collaborated with Parley for the Oceans, to promote awareness for the protection and preservation of our oceans. It has done this by turning recycled plastic and netting recovered from the sea, into running shoes, swimsuits and other items, giving a reprieve to some of the non-biodegradable petroleum products that feed consumer addictions. Plastic, it turns out, is a design failure. We just didn’t know that it will never be gone.
Parley for the Oceans believes that it is down to the modern day consumer to save the oceans. The organization also believes that it is the responsibility of creative industries, such as brands, designers, musicians and filmmakers, to help change the mindset of consumers.
If this is true, and it is the actions of individual consumers that can impact the health of the planet’s oceans, then it will be Consumers vs Governments, since the policies that promote the trashing of this half of the planet are the political poker chips in the great game of globalization, and free trade agreements are simply the IOUs employed by the heads of government to stay in the game.
A week after the UN made its announcement about a good faith Paris Agreement for the Oceans, the US Administration announced a plan to encourage offshore drilling for gas and oil in 90% of US waters. The US Department of the Interior revealed its five year plan to make nearly a billion acres available on the Atlantic Ocean’s eastern seaboard for gas and oil drilling. Additionally, it would consider offering 47 drilling rights at auction for eastern seaboard sites. There are also more plans for further drilling in the Pacific Ocean and Arctic Ocean around Alaska, as well as down the San Andreas Fault Line coast, and in the Gulf of Mexico.
This Christmas gift from the Trump Administration went not to the planet but—again— to the owners of gas and oil companies. It was a roll back of bothersome regulations that protect oil rig workers and the environment from drilling disasters, like the Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico. And yet another Christmas gift to oil company owners was access to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
The US government is simply making blatant what all countries do, more or less, and that is to act as though everything is an economic commodity to be freed by the labours of harvest. In this light, the sea is not the source of all life, but a cash cow. Nothing trumps trade.
Under free trade agreements, all off-shore federally protected waters are vulnerable to any gas and oil company who wishes to drill there. NAFTA and CETA, for example, sacrifice federal legal protections in the name of commercial development, and disputes are not settled by any judiciary, anywhere, but by a tribunal of industrialists.
It has been true for a century that gas, oil and mining are marquee instruments of US hegemony, because they fuel the military-industrial complex—the world-eating monster that Eisenhower famously warned about in 1961.
A momentum of resistance to this assault has been created by the actions of individuals and organizations that recognize, now, the essential role that healthy oceans play in the very life cycle of all plants and animals, and the weather itself. Environmental organizations, like Food and Water Watch, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd Conservation, Oceanic Preservation Society, ORCA, and others, see that our fate, and the fate of the oceans are one. www.foodandwateractionfund.org
In every nation, citizens must press their congressmen, senators, and members of parliament till they feel an unstoppable revolt against government policies that reflect this callus disregard for the lifeblood of all the planet’s systems—the oceans.
In the US, many states (Maryland, New Jersey, Florida) are organizing lawsuits against energy extraction off their coasts, and this will put them head-to-head with their federal government. It will not be a David-and-Goliath battle if outraged citizens rise up like a tsunami and simply overwhelm myopic administrators and short-sighted industry leaders.
For former NASA scientist and renown climatologist James Hansen, the litigate-to-mitigate campaign is needed alongside political mobilization, “because judges are less likely than politicians to be in the pocket of oil, coal and gas companies.”[Text Wrapping Break]
“The judiciary is the branch of government in the US and other countries that is relatively free of bribery. And bribery is exactly what is going on,” he told the Guardian on the sidelines of the UN climate talks in Bonn last November.
Environmental politics is the refusal to surrender life to the violence of global capitalism, corporate governance, and militarism. This defiance has to serve as the turning point for the fate of the oceans. No matter where you live, your life is shaped by the ocean, and it has always been thus. We are living in the consequences, and it might well be almost too late.
Publishers Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.