The Ocean in the Rio Process: Past and Present

  • June 08, 2012

oceans incThe ocean will be one of the seven top priority issues on the table at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, a reflection of growing international and public awareness of both the threats it is facing and the values it provides. Experts and stakeholders concerned about the health of what amounts to 70% of the surface of our planet are committed to ensuring that this Rio and what comes after it, accord the ocean the attention it deserves.

At the original Earth Summit in 1992 the ocean was little more than an afterthought, marine scientists and experts were less vocal and active in policy or communications, and the pubic was far less aware of and engaged in ocean issues. By Rio+10, the World Summit for Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002, things were little better, though some concrete commitments were reached there has been little effort to implement them. Though the 1992 Rio Summit did not herald a new era of ocean conservation, the wisdom enshrined in the pledges made at this seminal event is more valid today than ever. 1992 saw the birth of ‘Agenda 21', in Chapter 17 of which states pledged to provide for the protection of the marine and coastal environment, and – crucially - committed to taking an integrated and precautionary approach.

The last 20 years can be characterized by intense international and regional negotiations about everything from fishing quotas to coral reef protection on the one hand, and a staggering lack of enforcement and widespread unsustainable – and in many cases criminal - exploitation of marine resources on the other.

In the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) of 2002, States committed to the target to maintain or restore fish stocks to maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 2015 and to implementing science-based management plans for rebuilding stocks by 2015, including by reducing or suspending fishing catch and effort for all stocks being overfished or at risk of overfishing. The JPOI reaffirmed state's responsibility to fulfill the obligations under the FAO International Plan of Action for the Management of Fishing Capacity, which was to have been completed by 2005. They also committed to eliminating harmful subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by 2020, and to creating networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2012.

Ten years later we have arrived in 2012 with less than 1% of the area of the ocean protected, 85% of fish stocks under threat, and subsidies still driving overfishing throughout the world. However, as the Pew Environment Group's director of international policy, Sue Lieberman, has said: “Although many multilateral targets have been missed, these targets and goals are still relevant and obligations to them should not waver.”

In the decade since Johannesburg, the issue of protecting biodiversity in the deep sea in areas beyond national jurisdiction - the high seas - has been extensively debated by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and other international fora. Starting in 2004, the UNGA has adopted a series of resolutions, (Resolution 59/25 in 2004; 61/105 in 2006; 64/72 in 2009; and 66/88 in 2011), which call (and re-call!) on high seas fishing nations and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to take urgent action to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems (VME) from destructive fishing practices, including bottom trawl fishing, in areas beyond national jurisdiction. After each Resolution, subsequent reviews have concluded that implementation has not adequately taken place, leading to this cycle of new provisions and new Resolutions. To further support the UNGA resolutions, a set of International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas were then negotiated under the auspices of FAO and adopted in August 2008.

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High seas fishing States are, with few exceptions, failing to live up to the provisions of these UNGA resolutions. As a result, deep sea stocks continue to be increasingly overexploited and vulnerable marine ecosystems may be lost. There are increasingly strong calls for States to complete the unfinished business of protecting deep-sea life.

The last 20 years can be characterized by intense international and regional negotiations about everything from fishing quotas to coral reef protection on the one hand, and a staggering lack of enforcement and widespread unsustainable – and in many cases criminal - exploitation of marine resources on the other. The paradoxical result is a host of highly commendable resolutions and agreements on paper, and an increasingly imperiled ocean in practice.

In the preparations for Rio+20, strong, concrete proposals have been made for improving the management of our ocean resources, including the reiteration of the important commitments that have been reached in earlier Summits and agreements. However, contentious debates on the draft outcome document are ongoing, and there is a real danger that they could be watered down or rolled back in the final negotiations, with some governments even reluctant to reconfirm the decisions made in Johannesburg ten years ago.

2012 also marks the 30th Anniversary of one of the most important legal documents of the 20th Century: the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Many believe that Rio+20 is the chance to bring the law to the High Seas and signal the end of the age of broken promises and the careless and criminal overexploitation and neglect of the Ocean. 

Download the briefing below to learn more about what is needed at Rio+20 and why ocean protection is important.

Visit www.oceansinc.org to follow discussions, negotiations, and events related to Rio+20.

Topics: Oceans, Environment