Putting the Ocean Back Into the Earth Summit

  • October 31, 2011

In June 2012, governments will meet to secure renewed political commitment to better manage the finite supply of natural resources on Earth, at what will be known as the Rio+20 conference in Brazil.

It was 20 years ago that governments from around the world met to define the future of the environment at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit. It attracted 108 heads of State and 172 countries, with a goal to meet current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

The world has since changed in ways that could not have been imagined back in 1992, with more sophisticated technology and better science, in parallel with an escalating demand for resources to feed and supply the needs of a burgeoning global population.

With 70 percent of the Earth's surface covered by the ocean and its central role in supporting life on our planet, it is time to focus on the needs of the ocean itself, and the hundreds of millions of people who depend on it for their survival.

The cost of inaction and stalemate for our ocean and humanity's future is far too high.

-Sue Lieberman, Pew's director of international policy
The facts speak for themselves:
  • According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 85 percent of fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion—the highest proportion ever recorded.
  • Sharks are in trouble: Population declines of various species have been reported globally, some by as much as 70 to 80 percent. Studies estimate that up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to supply the fin trade.
  • Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is responsible for the loss of US$10 billion to $23 billion a year and for 11 million to 26 million tonnes of fish that are unaccounted for, from a total world capture of approximately 80 million tonnes. IUU fishing also distorts the setting of quotas, becuase they do not account for illegal catch totals.

Governments have already agreed that this upcoming Rio+20 conference must secure renewed political will for sustainable development, as well as assess progress and review gaps in the implementation of decisions already made at earlier major summits.

“Although many multilateral targets have been missed, these targets and goals are still relevant and obligations to them should not waver,” said Sue Lieberman, Pew's director of international policy.

She added, “Our species has changed the natural world more rapidly and extensively than any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel. These resources have disproportionately gone to developed countries, largely at the expense of developing countries and the diversity of species both on land and in the sea."

“Between now and June 2012, governments will submit and negotiate their positions for Rio+20. The cost of inaction and stalemate for our ocean and humanity's future is far too high. The alternative is renewed hope and the exercise of global political will to carry forward the aspirations from twenty years ago.”

Pew's top 10 recommendations for Rio +20

At Rio +20, Pew believes that governments must make ocean conservation a high priority by taking strong, meaningful action—particularly in areas beyond national jurisdiction, the high seas.

Specifically, governments should:

  1. Enhance conservation of marine biodiversity by setting in motion negotiation of a new agreement under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  2. Reform international fisheries management—meaning that if no real science-based management exists, no fishing should be allowed.
  3. Address overcapacity, with too many boats chasing too few fish.
  4. Eliminate subsidies to the fishing industry that contribute to pirate fishing, overcapacity, and overfishing.
  5. Take action to end destructive fishing practices.
  6. Take action to improve monitoring, control, and surveillance of vessels fishing on the high seas.
  7. Take action to stop overfishing and ensure that all depleted fish species are restored.
  8. Implement the 2002 target to maintain or restore all fish stocks to maximum sustainable yield (the largest average catch that can be taken continuously (sustained) under prevailing environmental conditions without affecting the reproductive health of a stock) by 2015.
  9. Ensure U.N. oversight of regional fisheries management organizations—international organizations made up large of countries with fishing interests—that seek to manage fisheries for certain species in specific geographic areas.
  10. Prohibit the take of threatened or endangered species as listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or national legislation.

Related Materials:

Report: Ocean Earth: How Rio+20 Can and Must Turn the Tide

Gap Analysis: Rio+20: Time to Turn Back the Tide - An analysis of gaps in the implementation of the ocean-related outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development

UNCSD: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development 

Find out more about our international policy work.

Topics: Oceans, Environment