The Role of U.S. Diplomacy in Protecting the World’s Oceans
July 24, 2014
Author: Dominic Watson, C’15
When astronauts first broke the bounds of our planet’s atmosphere and crossed into the darkness of space, man looked back at Earth for the first time. What these astronauts saw was nothing short of breathtaking. Earth, which we have long thought to be inexhaustible in its ability to provide for humanity, and over which mankind had believed to have established complete dominion, was seen as a beautiful, yet fragile blue planet, alone and vulnerable in the vast expanse of space. Years later, when Apollo 17, the last manned lunar mission, returned the famous “Blue Marble” photograph to Earth in 1967 humanity was brought face to face with the finite nature of our planet and the iconic photograph was greeted by many as the symbol of a new global consciousness.
Yet today, we find ourselves in a more perilous position than any generation before. Our oceans, the life blood of our blue planet, are under threat. Many important figures have raised the alarm. In his opening remarks for the “Our Oceans” conference, put on by the Department of State, President Obama stated the following: “Rising levels of carbon dioxide are causing our oceans to acidify. Pollution endangers marine life. Overfishing threatens whole species as well as the people who depend on them for food and their livelihoods. If we ignore these problems, if we drain our oceans of their resources, we won’t just be squandering one of humanity’s greatest treasures – we’ll be cutting off one of the world’s major resources of food and economic growth, including for the United States, and we cannot afford to let that happen.”1 How could we have allowed ourselves to decimate our planet’s greatest and most valuable resource? What are the major issues facing our oceans today? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the way forward?
What Are the Issues?
There are numerous issues affecting our oceans today, however three overarching and interconnected issues stand out: sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, and ocean acidification. These issues not only threaten marine ecosystems, which are themselves inherently valuable, but the lives, cultures, and well-being of the billions of people and communities who rely on the oceans for their livelihood. Furthermore, the implications of drastically transforming the oceans reach far beyond its shores to every corner of the planet. Extreme weather events and shifting atmospheric currents know no boundaries; their devastating impacts will spare nobody, even those far from the sea. Indeed, our planet is an extraordinarily complex interconnected system, and our oceans are one of its most vital components. Covering over 70% of the Earth’s surface, the oceans are home to most of the living species on this planet and harbor greatest biodiversity anywhere on Earth.2 The protection of the seas must therefore be paramount to any effort that aims to guard against environmental degradation and protect human well-being on our planet. For this the sake of this blog post we will focus on one specific issue, that of sustainable fisheries.
An Example: Sustainable Fisheries
The depletion of our oceans fish and shellfish populations by unsustainable fishing practices remains a major problem today. The Department of State confirms that more than 3 billion people “rely on food from the ocean as a significant source of protein.” And it is estimated that 29% of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited while another 61% are fished to capacity.3 This and the growing global demand for fish as an important source of protein, especially in poor and developing countries, has enormous implications for global food security.4 The existing international management strategies for global fisheries have been insufficient in dealing with the problem. Harmful fishing practices including bottom trawling – where industrial sized nets are dragged along the bottom of the ocean destroying everything along its path – or ghost fishing – where discarded fishing material continues to maim and kill ocean life without providing any economic or social benefit.5
What is Being Done?
In June of 2014, the U.S. Department of State hosted the “Our Ocean” conference to address three of the most important threats to the world’s oceans today – sustainable fishing, marine pollution, and ocean acidification. This international event brought together an array of industry stake holders, policy experts, advocates, and heads of state with the goal of making marine conservation a salient issue in foreign policy.4 The conference aimed to raise public awareness and to elevate the profile of these issues in the world of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. One of the most important specific policy initiatives for sustainable fisheries to come out of the conference was a renewed push for the ratification of the Port State Measures Agreement, which aims to combat illegally harvested fishing by putting the responsibility of source verifications on the port of entry, thereby stopping illegal fish from entering onto the legal market place. This is an important step forward, but much work still needs to be done to resolve this monumental problem.
Perhaps Carl Sagan characterized our predicament most powerfully, when describing the Earth as seen from outer space: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”5
1. Obama, Barack. “Video Remarks: Our Ocean Conference.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, 17 June 2014. Web. 23 July 2014.
2. “What Percentage of Life Is Estimated to Be in the Ocean?” What Percentage of Life Is Estimated to Be in the Ocean? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 24 June 2014. Web. 23 July 2014.
3. Sustainable Fisheries. Washington: US Department of State, 2014. Our Oceans Conference. Web. 21 July 2014. <http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/227496.pdf>.
4. Kinver, Mark. “Global Fish Consumption Hits Record High.” BBC News. BBC, 02 Jan. 2011. Web. 23 July 2014.
5. Sustainable Fisheries. Washington: US Department of State, 2014. Our Oceans Conference. Web. 21 July 2014.
6. “Kerry to Host Conference on Overfishing, Pollution and Other Threats to Oceans.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 July 2014.
7. Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.
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