In Too Deep: The race to save our ‘Wild West’ seas

Ed Conway, Economics Editor

Who owns the sea? It is an odd sort of question, and it has an odd sort of answer.

The short version is that we all do – you, me and everyone else on the planet.

Most of the oceans are safeguarded by United Nations treaties for what they call “the common heritage of mankind”.

This phrase, a rather poetic effort at constructive ambiguity, is much the same as the formulation we use to describe mankind’s relationship with the moon or with space.

The difference, of course, is that it is far easier to dip one’s toes in the sea than in the Sea of Tranquillity. And we’ve spent the past few millennia doing precisely that.

The ocean has always been our common source of food, our common means of transport and our common dustbin. It has been a source of immense riches. An economic gift that has provided unquantifiable amounts of value for humankind.

Blue Economy
Image: The world’s oceans provide ‘unquantifiable amounts of value for humankind’

Some economists have attempted to quantify that impossible sum. They have added up the income from fishing, from trade and transport, from tourism, from coral reefs.

They have attempted to put a price on the fact that the ocean is the source of half the oxygen we breathe, the sink for much of the carbon dioxide we exhale and the great moderator of our climate.

The figures they have come up with have tended to run into the trillions, at which point they became a bit meaningless.

And this is rather the problem: we simply do not know the value of the oceans to our economies. They are, quite literally, priceless.

That raises an issue. Economic theory suggests that unless we know how much something is worth – and have a clear idea of who owns it – we tend not to treat it with the respect it deserves.

That theory – the tragedy of the commons – was originally all about how farmers would overgraze their cows on common pasture land, since individually there was nothing to stop them doing so.

We simply do not know the value of the oceans to our economies. They are, quite literally, priceless.

Ed Conway

Those individual acts eventually added up to a shared ecological catastrophe. The principle helps explain why things are going wrong in the oceans.

Plastic pollution – something we at Sky News have spent the past year documenting – is only the beginning of it.

There is the issue of vast pollution from industrial agriculture around the world – fertiliser run-off which has polluted the waters around many of our coastlines.

The upshot is that many of our seas are deoxygenated. We are seeing dead zones, areas deprived of marine life, across the planet.

The rise in sea temperatures in recent years, itself a consequence of climate change, is causing coral bleaching episodes on a regular frequency.

There are fears that many of the world’s tropical corals will simply die off, which would spell disaster for local ecosystems, since corals are the gardens in which most of the marine life of the tropics live and breed.

Which brings us to fish themselves. For most of human history there was an overarching assumption that there was a nearly infinite number of fish in the sea.

Image: The oceans have, for the first time in history, seen a falling number of fish caught each year

But in recent years, something changed. Partly as a result of industrialised fishing on an unprecedented scale, the oceans have, for the first time in history, seen a falling number of fish caught each year.

The explanations for this are far from straightforward. Many of the fishermen I spoke to on my travels insisted there were still more than enough fish in the oceans and that there was no shortage.

Others – particularly small-scale artisan fishermen – blamed the giant industrial trawlers for taking so many of their fish.

There are political dimensions to this. For many small developing island nations, one lucrative option is to sell off fishing rights to fishing boats from Europe and further afield, in exchange for hefty fees.

That is precisely what has happened in the Seychelles, the epicentre of the Indian Ocean’s tuna industry. For many years, the fishermen assumed they could never run out of tuna, but recently worries have emerged about the sustainability of their stocks.

In particular, they fear that the yellow-fin tuna may soon become endangered.

This is only one of the concerns facing this small nation – largely reliant on tourism and fishing.

The main attractions for the tourism industry are the beautiful white sand beaches, the fresh seafood and the rich, colourful coral reefs.

But the country’s reefs are under threat. They have faced several bleaching episodes in recent years, which raises an uncomfortable question: what happens if the reefs all die?

After all, the white sand on the beaches is entirely a product of those coral reefs (the sand is created when fish nibble off bits of the coral).

The fish served up in local restaurants are reliant on the reefs for their habitat. And what happens to snorkelling and diving if there is no coral left anymore?

Coral reef
Image: Colourful coral reefs are a main attraction of the tourism industry

All of the above helps explain why, last month, the country took radical action.

It turned a whopping 15% of its waters into a marine protected area, limiting the amount of fishing and exploitation.

The idea is to increase the size even further in the coming years. It will reduce the vast areas in which the tuna fisherman can operate, and will, the government hopes, help safeguard the habitat for the fish.

And while coral bleaching is a global phenomenon, conservation groups are at work trying to rebuild the coral reefs, creating a bank of hardier breeds which might be able to survive further rises in sea temperature.

Just as intriguingly, the Seychelles has built up detailed plans of its entire territorial waters, trying to calculate what we have failed to understand for so long – just how much value is there in those waters, and how can it ensure it can benefit from it in a sustainable way. In short, it is trying to solve the tragedy of the commons.

Putting a value on the oceans is only one part of the solution. The other involves answering that first question: who owns the sea?

The longer version of the answer provides further detail on how our relationship with the ocean went wrong.

Under the UN law of the sea, each country can lay claim to 200 nautical miles of the sea from their coastline. This is what is technically known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Within this zone, a country can do pretty much what it wants. It can restrict fishing, it can impose some of the marine protected areas we now see across the Seychelles. It can drill for oil, plant wind turbines and so on.

A fisherman's boat is seen at Seychelles port
Image: The Seychelles is calculating the value of its waters

If the world’s seas were all owned by countries that bordered them, then it’s not impossible to imagine a solution to the tragedy of the commons.

The problem is once you get beyond that 200 nautical miles you are in the high seas – these are the equivalent of the Wild West: owned by no country, covered by no laws.

Technically speaking, you could go out to these seas and do whatever you want: fish all you want, dump all the rubbish you want, pick up whatever you want and call it your own.

Increasingly, while industrial fishing boats are cutting back on fishing in territorial waters and in countries’ EEZs, they are fishing more and more from the high seas, with no one to stop them. And there are other, deeper issues here.

For if you were to swim to the bottom of the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, you would come across minerals and metals with an almost incalculable value.

On land, we are fast running out of the metals which we’ll need in the coming century to power electric cars, build the next generation of mobile phones and provide us with a sustainable, green future.

But these metals exist in multitudes under the sea. And now that we have the autonomous submarine technology that will enable us to do that, what is to stop anyone going out and plundering it?

Sea mining
Image: Autonomous submarine technology can mine for metals

The answer is an institution you’ve probably never heard of, based in a quiet part of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica.

The International Seabed Authority is the organisation charged by the UN with managing any mineral extraction in the high seas.

In practice that means deciding which countries can explore and mine for those metals – from gold to copper to cobalt.

Isn’t that essentially like parcelling off the seabed to the highest bidder? Not quite, says the ISA’s head, Michael Lodge.

Because those countries who mine out there will have to give a share of their profits to the rest of the world. In the case of deep-sea mining, the “common heritage of mankind” means everyone gets a share.

The issue is that we remain quite ignorant of what lies in the seabed. Every time scientists make expeditions to the seafloor they discover new species and new rock formations.

There is a chance there are extremely valuable creatures and features we simply don’t know about. For instance, bio-prospectors are already using compounds created from some sea squirts found in the Caribbean which are now being used to fight cancer.

Which other diseases could be cured by deep sea creatures we have yet to encounter? And what is the risk that deep-sea mining destroys those species before we entirely understand them?

Then there are the risks to human knowledge. The ISA recently allotted a segment of the mid-Atlantic ridge to Poland to explore for mining sites.

Within that plot is an area called the Lost City, where scientists have discovered a chemical reaction occurring which might mirror what happened when life began on this planet four billion years ago.

While no one expects Poland to destroy the Lost City, the fact is there is no specific rule or regulation stopping them.

Indeed, the ISA is only now starting to draw up the rules which will govern deep-sea mining.

Michael Lodge
Image: Michael Lodge heads the ISA, which manages mineral extraction in the sea

As Mr Lodge told me, the institution might well be the solution to the tragedy of the commons – its very job is to ensure that when we start mining in the high seas, we go in with our eyes open, unlike almost every other gold rush in history.

But that will take a lot of tough work from the ISA, a shoestring operation which will soon face immense pressure from the likes of China and Russia – two of the biggest enthusiasts in the nascent field.

Still, it is a reminder that if we behave sensibly, there is nothing to stop us benefiting from the sea’s resources while maintaining its ecosystem.

As I learned when I travelled to Orkney to visit the world’s leading wave and tidal power test centre, the sea could provide enough electricity to power the entire world.

The minerals sitting around on the bottom of the sea could help us to build the world’s next generation of electric cars and solar panels. Managed properly, there could be more than enough fish to feed us forever.

But if we carry on the way we have in recent years, there is an alternative future – one where sea levels rise, causing untold costs; where fish stocks run out; where coral reefs die and the ocean’s capacity to keep absorbing our carbon dioxide diminishes.

More from Sky Ocean Rescue

We are seeing what Bank of England Governor Mark Carney describes as a “market failure”. We are running out of time to put it right.

In Too Deep airs on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday at 8pm and on Sky News on Friday at 9pm.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here