‘We Need to Protect the Ocean Before it’s Too Late’

President and CEO of Ocean Unite, Karen Sack, speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj for World Ocean Day about why the first global treaty to protect the world’s ocean is urgently needed.

Interview Updated 24 July 2023 Published 8 June 2020 15 minute READ

Karen Sack

President and CEO, Ocean Unite

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Earth’s ocean is warming at the same rate as five Hiroshima atomic bombs dropping into the water each second, according to scientists, causing the ocean to run out of oxygen and endangering the future of millions of marine species.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered a grim projection for the future of the world’s ocean, revealing how glaciers and ice sheets are melting at an unprecedented rate, threatening frequent storms and regular flooding in countries around the world. What, in your opinion, is driving these changes?

The biggest driver of changes in the ocean at the moment is the climate emergency. The ocean absorbs more than 90 per cent of the world’s heat and a quarter of our global greenhouse gas emissions, and if it didn’t do so, then living conditions on land would be completely different for us right now so the ocean has acted as a crucial buffer against major climate changes.

The impact this has had on the ocean, however, has been severe. The Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans are all predicted to be much warmer than they have ever been this year which has major implications for the frequency of extreme weather such as storms and flooding.

We are also seeing the oxygen content of the ocean declining at an unprecedented rate as you mentioned. There was a huge report released by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature last year which revealed the scale of the decline in ocean oxygen content. Oxygen is not uniform around the planet but depleting oxygen levels is going to have all kinds of implications for us since half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.

Depleting oxygen levels in the ocean will also have implications for marine species, for example, fish can’t grow as big when there’s not as much oxygen and that has implications for our food security.

Then, on top of that, the changing chemistry in our ocean from this deluge of CO2 has a significant impact on our coral reefs where dead zones are increasingly emerging from the warming and the deoxygenation.

If we then add the collateral damage caused from other human activities then the picture becomes much worse. Overfishing, for example, is a huge problem. We have fished out species including some of the smallest foraged species, like krill, sardines and pilchards, to some of the biggest fish in the sea, like tunas and sharks.

Bluefin tuna in the Pacific Ocean, for example, is down to around 3 per cent of its population size and we have done that over the last 50 years. This is having grave impacts on the health of marine ecosystems and ocean productivity.

Human activities in the deep sea, such as destructive fishing activity like bottom trawling, is also a huge problem, in addition to, habitat destruction in coastal areas including the destruction of mangroves, seagrass beds and coastal wetlands.

These are systems that have a triple bottom line: they sequester carbon, they are nurseries for baby fish and other marine species and they also are key to the resilience of coastal communities since these natural sea walls are critical to protecting us from rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Finally, in case that toxic mix isn’t enough, pollution from the run-off of intensive agriculture on land and other industrial production processes has ecologically compromised the Earth’s natural systems and the signs are all showing us that we need to change what we’re doing before it’s too late.

Billions of people globally depend on the ocean for their livelihoods with more than three billion people dependant on fish as a major part of their diet. However, by the end of the century, a quarter of all fish could be gone, threatening food insecurity for billions of people. What could be the cost of not taking adequate action to protect the world’s ocean?

I think this is such an important question. Currently 50 per cent of the world’s population live in coastal areas and we can expect to see increasing flooding around some of the largest cities in the world as well as largescale displacement as communities move to find food and shelter.

The incredible thing about the ocean, however, is that it has the amazing ability to regenerate itself and we, as humans, can help it by doing four things.

The first is safeguarding the ocean by creating the equivalent of national parks which, the science shows, needs to cover at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.

The second is investing in nature-based solutions like protecting mangroves and seagrass beds. Mangroves can sequester four to 10 times as much CO2 as terrestrial forests but we are losing them at an alarming rate and, whenever we do, they release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere contributing to the challenges we are facing. In fact, experts estimate that the amount of CO2 released annually from degraded wetlands is equivalent to the annual emissions of the United Kingdom, yet it’s two and a half times cheaper to restore them then building artificial infrastructures, so it makes no sense to not invest in nature‑based solutions.

The third is ensuring that all human activities outside of protected areas are sustainable and, finally, and most importantly, the critical thing we have to do is tackle the climate emergency. We have to stick to the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees and move as quickly as possible to achieving the net-zero emissions target by 2050 at the very latest.

Currently, only 1 per cent of the world’s high seas are protected and, as you mentioned, scientists warn that in to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, 30 per cent would need to be safeguarded by 2030. The first international legally-binding treaty to preserve the high seas is expected to be adopted this year aiming to protect large areas of the world’s ocean from human activities. How has this agreement come into being?

Currently, countries govern up to 200 nautical miles of the water from their coasts but, beyond that, are the high seas and that’s what these negotiations at the UN are focusing on. The high seas make up the majority of the ocean but, as you mentioned, only about 1 per cent are currently protected.

Following the Second World War, as industrial fishing developed and technology evolved, countries started looking at operating their vessels in different places and fish out the waters adjacent to the coastlines of other countries.

The result of that was the negotiation, over a long period of time, of the Convention on the Law of the Sea which is a constitution for the ocean. It sets out all of the terms on which countries are supposed to co-operate together to manage the ocean and delimits which parts of the ocean fall within national jurisdiction and beyond national jurisdiction.

Following this, there was an agreement negotiated to establish an International Seabed Authority to govern the extraction of seabed minerals from areas beyond national jurisdiction and this is a huge issue at the moment because these minerals are now seen as a panacea for all of the resource shortages we have on land.

Then there was another agreement on governing high migratory and straddling fish stock. These are the fish species that migrate across the highways and byways of the ocean across national jurisdictions yet they don’t recognize borders but still have to be managed in some way.

Interestingly, all of these agreements look at how we can extract life from the ocean but there hasn’t been one to govern how we protect it until recently. Over the last 15 years, there has been a growing consensus that we need another implementing agreement under the Convention on the Law of the Sea that focuses on how we can conserve marine life in those areas beyond national jurisdiction.

The discussions have involved how to balance the rights and responsibilities of countries, particularly the exploitation of marine biodiversity against the responsibility to protect them, which has become critical as we have learnt more about how criticality endangered the ocean is.

International agreements, however, often don’t talk to one another, and so, the idea behind this new global high seas treaty is to focus on improving collaboration across the different agreements we have in place and, most importantly, improving coherence in decision-making.

The treaty is critical because it addresses a huge gap in international governance of the ocean – this is the biggest biosphere on the planet – yet there is little regulation over how countries can use it.

But international treaties are only as strong as the will of the member states who agree to sign up to them so it’s important that there is buy-in from around the world especially given the pressures on the high seas.

However, we have seen how apathy to sustainably managing this part of our planet has resulted in its degradation so we cannot wait too long to take action otherwise it will be too late.

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Antarctica is the only continent on Earth without human inhabitants hosting only animals including the gentoo penguin. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, allows only scientific research to be carried out on the continent. Photo: Getty Images.

Antarctica is the only continent on Earth without human inhabitants, hosting only animals, including the gentoo penguin. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, allows only scientific research to be carried out on the continent. Photo: Getty Images.

— Antarctica is the only continent on Earth without human inhabitants, hosting only animals, including the gentoo penguin. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, allows only scientific research to be carried out on the continent. Photo: Getty Images.

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Recently, the European Union announced a plan to protect 30 per cent of its land and ocean over the next 10 years while the Seychelles has designated almost a third of its ocean as marine protected areas.

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has announced the creation of an additional marine protected area in the Arctic to help safeguard 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020 and the UK has created a global alliance of 10 countries to help safeguard the world’s ocean too.

How hopeful are you that these national commitments can be accomplished and how would they need to work together with other international instruments to be successful?

10 years ago world leaders weren’t making any of these commitments so it’s amazing to see how much has changed and this is, in part, because of the incredible work of people around the world.

Scientists, academics, civil society groups, indigenous people and fisher folk are all working to say, ‘We need to protect the ocean urgently.’ These are the voters who, at the end of the day, elect these world leaders and it’s becoming increasingly part of their mission – part of their legacy – to do something to help protect the ocean.

The big question, however, is whether more world leaders will take up the challenge and that goes to the heart of so many of the issues we face around the world at the moment.

The detrimental leadership we have in some places around the world when it comes to the environment is damaging but we have a new generation of young people who are pushing this agenda forward and I hope that world leaders will rise to the challenge.

2020 was supposed to be a ‘super year’ for the ocean before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The global high seas treaty was supposed to have been agreed at the end of March while the Convention on Biological Diversity was planning to meet in October to set its new land and ocean protection targets for 2030 and there were various other key moments in the ocean world this year too. However, everything has been put on hold.

When we think about gathering political will, what always strikes me is the example of Antarctica, where at the height of the Cold War, countries came together to declare Antarctica a place for peace and science.

It was exemplary multilateralism in a place that requires the countries that govern it to work together and it was at a time when the US and Russia were both talking about putting nuclear weapons in this incredibly challenging environment so there was both incredible multilateralism plus the political will to act.

Then, in the mid-1980s, there was a threat of deep seabed mining in Antarctic waters and that led to the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty in 1992 which further cemented the co-operative nature of decision-making and the recognition of the need to protect this area from human activities.

Then, again, in 2016, countries came together to create the biggest marine protected area in the world in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. So, the Antarctic shows the possibility of collaborative action for good, particularly when a pressing need arises.

Last year’s reports from the IPCC on the world’s oceans and cryosphere and from the IPBES on the state of biodiversity showed that we are in a time of desperate need. The imperative to act is clear and the opportunity is before us. We now need world leaders to step up and make it happen.

That’s so fascinating, why do you think efforts have varied between the Antarctic and the Arctic, where countries are jostling for its natural resources?

Well the Antarctic is very far away from most countries whereas the Arctic is closer. Furthermore, the countries adjacent to it include Russia, Canada, the US and Norway who all have large industrial sectors.

If you want to drill in the Antarctic, boy, do you need a lot of money. Plus the countries adjacent to it are Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa, and yet, there’s still a long way you have to go before getting there so this is a huge deterrent.

It’s telling that countries have been unwilling to agree a legally binding treaty in the Arctic that holds them to account, whereas in the Antarctic, they have done so which makes the Antarctic one of the examples of the most progressive decision-making in international ocean law and I hope we can continue in this vein.

Do you see any shortcomings in the global high seas treaty in light of concerns over biopiracy as well as ongoing territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, which could affect national and international efforts to protecting the high seas?

Yes the biggest challenge is whether it will be ambitious enough to tackle some of these thorny issues. In fact, somewhat ironically, the coronavirus pandemic has bought a bit more time for countries to focus on some of these challenging issues.

Biopiracy, which is the use of genetic resources from marine species, is one of these issues. Who is allowed to use a species that is found in an area beyond national jurisdiction? Can a pharmaceutical company investing in the research pull it out and then patent it if it’s in international waters? If so, who benefits and will the proceeds of those benefits be shared? Given that these areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction account for 90 per cent of Earth’s available living space and contains millions, perhaps trillions, of as yet undiscovered species, this is a huge issue.

There are significant questions that need to be answered about how to regulate the commercialization of marine genetic resources and how to balance that with benefit-sharing particularly with developing countries. What we need is for the European Union and the G77 to sit down and tackle this all together. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel but they need to build trust so that there can be true international co-operation to solve our common problems.

On territorial questions, this is an issue that is largely dealt with through the Convention on the Law of the Sea which has comprehensive articles on how to resolve them which, so far, have been applied constructively in a number of circumstances. The convention has also established the international Tribunal for the Law of the Sea which can hear cases when disputes arise.

But, again, as with all international law, it requires countries to be ready to agree to work within those structures, and as with the case of the South China Sea, there are certain countries that don’t want to do that because these disputes are useful for them particularly as their coastal areas have been overfished, and now, with climate change, we are seeing the dispersal of fish and other marine species because of changing water temperatures, oxygen levels and habitats.

These are huge issues that need to be dealt with and we shouldn’t underestimate their potential to influence international diplomacy. The big question is whether geopolitics trumps reasonable decision-making or not and, I’m afraid, I can’t answer that but I am hopeful that common sense will prevail.

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Sea turtles can be found swimming during breeding season off of the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Getty Images.

Sea turtles can be found swimming during breeding season off of the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Getty Images.

— Sea turtles can be found swimming during breeding season off of the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Getty Images.

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From the changing climate, to biodiversity loss, to the increasing likelihood of more pandemics occurring in the future, the current coronavirus crisis has put a spotlight on how far humans are harming the environment. We have discussed how overfishing, deep sea mining and oil and gas drilling are some of the human activities affecting the ocean. How concerned are you by countries who might continue to unsustainably harness the ocean’s resources?

It’s concerning when the loopholes in international law or governance gaps are taken advantage of by companies or countries which has been the case in our history of managing the ocean.

Where there are fisheries agreements, if you are not signed up, then you are not bound by its rules and private sector actors and countries have been able to take advantage of this by registering their vessels or ships to countries that aren’t party to existing agreements.

Today, we find ourselves battling a pandemic that is completely linked to our assault on the environment and a lack of co-operation between countries to address our common problems.

The economic impacts of the pandemic are enormous and there will be certain industries and governments that will be pushing to resume the business-as-usual and even call for existing environmental regulations to be rolled back. For example, in the US, as the pandemic has raged, the government has systematically rolled back a number of environmental protections.

But the pandemic has given many of us all pause for reflection. We have realized that human health and planetary health are intrinsically linked and the business-as-usual approach is no longer an option and we need to build back better.

My hope is that enough people will see this as an opportunity to take the necessary action to ensure that our activities are sustainable and will safeguard the future of, not only our generation, but those that come after us.

Given the size of the planet’s ocean, which covers almost three quarters of the Earth’s surface, there are challenges presented with monitoring human activities in the high seas, whether it’s fleets removing fish from the ocean, or extraction taking place on the seabed. What type of surveillance mechanisms do you think there should be to mitigate this problem?

One of the most exciting things about this moment in time, although it’s also a little frightening, is that, in the past, ocean governance was largely a case of being out of sight and out of mind which means people could do whatever they wanted to do without anybody noticing.

However, today, there is enough data and technology available to put in place the types of comprehensive surveillance systems we need to monitor what is going on in the ocean from the very deep sea, all the way up, through the water column, to the surface.

The technology exists to gather data, including the use of artificial intelligence, to understand what is going on in the ocean and also, what we are doing, and what harm we are causing.

There are organizations like Global Fishing Watch, for example, which partners with Google to pull together data on fishing vessels from around the world so that we can see, transparently, what is going on and therefore hold vessels accountable which is key to achieving ocean sustainability.

Civil society and scientific bodies are starting to look at open sourcing data too which is creating information exchange platforms where all of this data can be collated and seen. This is important in terms of monitoring the extractive industries whether it’s fishing, offshore oil and gas drilling or deep sea mining.

But, again, the big question is, political will. Are countries willing to co-operate to ensure transparency, traceability and sustainability? It’s in their interest to embrace this system of regulation and openness if they want to remain viable because we can trace every leaf of spinach from farm to plate so we can certainly trace every fish if we put our minds to it and that’s where we need the political will to go.

There are some new agreements in place including things like the Port State Measures Agreement which aims to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing but we need more.

Historically, the ocean has been critical to trade, with the blue economy currently worth $2.5 trillion a year. The coronavirus crisis, however, has caused shipping to drop by up to 30 per cent in some regions. Some experts have argued that the ocean has a major role to play in economic recovery efforts after the crisis with some politicians calling for a Blue New Deal to help tackle the climate crisis while creating jobs. How would you like to see the ocean considered following the pandemic?

The health of the ocean – of our planet for that matter – needs to be considered as intrinsically linked to economic recovery in a post-coronavirus world.

The ocean is often overlooked and undervalued but it’s a critical contributor to the global economy. If it were a country, the ocean would be the seventh largest economy in the world with its assets valued at more than $24 trillion. In fact, it’s been estimated that the global ocean economy could more than double by 2030 – much of it along coastlines and in ocean sectors like aquaculture, tourism, marine energy and offshore installations.

So, with the blue economy set to expand, it’s in everyone’s interests to help it do so sustainably because an economy this large needs to be safeguarded. We cannot afford to make the mistakes of the past. We know that habitat destruction is directly linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases like the coronavirus, and if we continue down our current path of disrupting nature, we risk more pandemics in the future which will harm both human and economic wellbeing.

So, given what we know now, I think it would be impossible for humanity to go back to a business-as-usual approach that favours the destructive economic model we have had for so long which continues to expose us to further environmental, social and economic instability.

Healthy ecosystems on land and at sea support economic development and growth. If we use those terms ‘development’ and ‘growth’ in a sustainable way then we can reap huge social benefits.

The ocean could be restored within 30 years but action needs to be taken as soon as possible to protect it from overheating, running out of oxygen and acidification. How hopeful are you that the tide can change over the coming years to sustainably managing the ocean?

I’m an optimist and I believe the tide will change because, to be honest, we don’t have a choice. If we look at the growing 30x30 movement, which is calling on governments, businesses and organizations to support the goal to protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030, it gives me hope because, 10 years ago, I would never have imagined that there could be such a strong drive around this ambitious goal.

If we also look at how far the climate issue has moved to the front of people’s consciousness over the past two decades then we see that progress can be made.

There has been another development which I think is extremely exciting and that is, in the run-up to the UN Ocean Conference that was supposed to happen this month in Lisbon in Portugal, a group of organizations from across various sectors got together and generated a plan of what we need to do for ocean health. It’s called ‘RISE UP’ and over 250 organizations from around the world have signed onto this clear call to action  to ensure a healthy ocean.

They represent a hugely diverse group of interests, from academia, conservation, philanthropies, research, tourism, fisheries, indigenous peoples, youth, women, aquariums and even surfers and divers, and it shows that there’s a clear appetite for all of us to work together to build a healthy ocean movement together. It’s only through these types of collaborations that we can make change happen and help the ocean to rise again.