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Putting seas up for sale will not save the world’s fish

The oceans cover almost three-quarters of the planet’s surface, and for many people they represent the last great wilderness. But in fact the seas support many human activities, and have done for millennia…

Fishes' future rests in our hands. WorldFish

The oceans cover almost three-quarters of the planet’s surface, and for many people they represent the last great wilderness. But in fact the seas support many human activities, and have done for millennia - for how much longer, though, is debatable. And that has raised many suggestions of how to save them.

Marine ecosystems underpin an estimated two-thirds of global GDP, and seafood makes up around 6% of the world’s total protein consumption. As the world’s population approaches nine billion by the middle of this century, the demands on the sea to provide nutrition will continue to rise. Yet the UN has already acknowledged the failure to ensure sustainable use of the seas - efforts to ensure stocks are fished sustainably have been underway for more than 100 years in Europe, yet most stocks are over-exploited with population numbers below safe biological limits.

As well as over-fishing, human activities impact upon the whole marine ecosystem. The food chain is affected as predator or prey species are removed in great numbers, causing population shifts and imbalances. The seas are used as a dumping ground, from household rubbish to toxic waste. The oceans have also absorbed around half of all the carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution, which has raised the oceans' acidity levels. This build up of toxins, warming and acidification all impose great stresses on sea life.

So it’s clear that existing management schemes are failing to protect the oceans. This has prompted some to call for a partial privatisation of the oceans, with coastal communities “owning” areas of the sea. A recent proponent is the World Bank. Its 21-person panel of experts concludes that the threats to the ocean are so diverse and difficult for traditional measures to regulate that large-scale public-private partnerships are the best hope of delivering sustainable use.

The idea that someone who has ownership of a resource will protect it seems intuitive and proposals to “privatise” fisheries have a long history. Private rights do not themselves deliver sustainability or environmental protection – look at the impact industrialisation of agriculture has had on the countryside, for example. It is legislation that protects woods, hedgerows and field margins, not the fact that someone owns them.

From an economic point of view, creating a market – attributing value to, buying and selling areas of the sea - would contribute to economic indicators such GDP as these “services” currently rendered gratis would now be captured in the trading accounts of companies. But ultimately it would take something that is the common property of all and sell it (one assumes governments would sell rather than give) to corporations and consortia. These would then trade the sea floor like any other property.

From an ecological point of view the proposal is flawed. The seawater that carries fish larvae, plankton and other foods, and pollutants too, will wash in and out of these regions without any regard for boundary lines drawn on maps and charts. Similarly, fish will swim in and out of the areas without checking in at border control.

These cross-boundary movements would render many of the possible protective measures ineffective. When we own land we generally erect a fence or wall to keep our livestock in and to prevent others from gaining access to or damaging or our property. The land ownership analogy is simply not appropriate in the context of the oceanic world. The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) follows the principle that the high seas are international and owned by no nation, and are the common heritage of mankind (Article 136). A policy of privatisation of the seas therefore involves setting aside this principle.

Human pressures on the ocean continue to increase and effective action is certainly needed, and urgently. The idea of ceding parts of the ocean to local communities, perhaps in partnership with multinational corporations, is seen as providing a mechanism that would allow the communities that have a stake in the health of their local ecosystems to play a part in managing them, using their local knowledge.

Anthropologists are keen to promote examples where indigenous people develop their own environmental and resource management practice using traditional ecological knowledge. There are many examples of such successes in the marine environment - particularly in dynamic, productive ecosystems - but where fish are highly mobile such approaches fail.

If your fish move in and out of your patch it will always pay to catch them now, rather than let them go to be caught by someone else, or risk them moving to another area and not returning. The “noble savage” living in balance with nature is simply a romantic Victorian construct. Archaelological evidence shows clear over exploitation of fisheries resources by Stone Age peoples.

The world’s fish catch peaked in the 1980s; even from the 1960s on it was clear many stocks were severely over exploited. In the 50 years since then we have seen proposal after proposal to save the seas – reduce pollution, introduce Marine Protected Areas, extend Exclusive Economic Zones to 200 miles, and others. None has really delivered.

Speaking as an ecologist, the answer is simple – we need to reduce fishing. We need to do this urgently, make a significant change, and in one or two decades we might have healthier stocks which can then sustain catch rates similar to now. But talk of privatising the sea is just another example of how politicians are unwilling to face the challenge head on.

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