Seven threats to the seven seas

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

Seven threats to the seven seas


outlines a programme of action for tackling the greatest dangers to the oceans

shipMy commitment to protecting the seas comes from personal experience. Before I went into politics, I earned my living at sea - sailing on great ocean liners around the world. I also qualified as a diver. I have done most of my diving in the North Sea and Mediterranean, where all you tend to see are plastic cups and empty coke cans. I did not fully appreciate what a living ocean meant until I dived off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

In Parliament, I represent Hull, once a major fishing port and still closely linked to the sea via its sea trade. It is this - my close involvement with the sea - that convinces me of the importance of protecting it, for our seas have been abused for too long.

In the last half-century, human impact on the sea has changed. Ships have become bigger. The potential for oil pollution has increased. Offshore oil and gas have become worldwide businesses. Fishing has been transformed. New chemicals threaten our seas. And there is growing demand for sea-bed mining. But the world is also now much more aware of the influence we have on the sea, and how the sea affects us. To plead ignorance is now unacceptable. That is a crucial change if we are to increase public support to tackle environmental problems.

International action

We are in the middle of the International Year of the Ocean, which will reach a conclusion with a review of the world's priorities for action on the marine environment in April 1999. This review will take place in the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) - the United Nations' main forum for promoting patterns of development which protect and enhance the environment.

The United Kingdom Government is doing all it can to promote the debate that will lead up to the CSD. We are encouraging the environment ministers of the world's major industrialized nations to prepare thoroughly for the CSD. In early April we put marine biodiversity on the agenda at the meeting of G8 environment ministers which we hosted. We are convening a second London Oceans Workshop in December. Like the one before the last CSD debate on oceans, this will be an opportunity for governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations from all around the world to come together to develop proposals for the CSD.

But all these international meetings are only worthwhile when they lead to action. We have numerous international conventions to protect various aspects of the marine environment. In the first place, we need to get nations that are signatories to these conventions to implement them - not just sign them. Then we need to look at the areas where the conventions need strengthening, or where new agreements are needed.


Just as we refer to all the world's oceans and seas as the seven seas, there are seven main threats to the marine environment. To begin with, there is my old occupation - shipping. A generation ago, states agreed measures to fight the harm that supertankers could do. Since then, we have expanded the rules to protect the sea from ships. For example, there are broader requirements for compulsory insurance. But too many states have sold their flags, allowing many 'flag of convenience' shipowners to ignore the rules and pollute the seas.

Port states have had to take up the challenge. In Europe, we have a memorandum of understanding on port state control. Under the United Kingdom Presidency of the European Union (EU), we intend to toughen the procedures, particularly on the disposal of wastes in ports.

The second threat is from dumping waste at sea. Since 1972, the London Convention has regulated this worldwide, and the OSPAR Convention has provided more detailed rules for the North-East Atlantic. In 1983, as a Member of Parliament I campaigned to stop the dumping of radioactive waste. I am very pleased to say that one of my first actions as the new Secretary of State for the Environment in a Labour Government last year was to drop the potential opt-out on this dumping under the OSPAR Convention. So we do have sound legislation on dumping. But again, we need to encourage more states to apply it.

Discharges and emissions from the land are the third threat - making up 70 per cent of marine pollution. In the United Kingdom we have made clear our determination to reduce such discharges. Action on land-based pollution at regional level is a priority. But we also need a global framework. The Global Programme agreed in Washington in 1995 gives us that - now we must put flesh on the bones. Some states need help to prepare plans. We need to get international agencies to give proper priority to this work. And we need to ensure a follow-up. No programme just happens: we need continuing work. We also need to deal globally with POPs - persistent organic pollutants - that spring from the use of chemicals in the tropics and work their way to the Arctic and accumulate in humans and sea mammals there. The Washington Global Programme gave the initiative for a global convention, now endorsed by UNEP's Governing Council. We need to carry that through.

Sea fishing is mankind's oldest way of using the sea. But overfishing is our fourth threat. Too frequently, we have treated fish stocks as inexhaustible. We can now track down and catch larger numbers of fish in less time than ever before. Too many of the world's fish stocks are being exploited in an unsustainable way. Fish continues to be an important source of protein for much of the world's population, and especially for the poor in many developing countries. To protect food security, we need to make all fisheries sustainable for the long term.

Since 1992 we have seen United Nations agreements start to map what needs doing. We have to follow them up. These require us to integrate environment and fisheries policies. North Sea fisheries and environment ministers last March agreed on steps to tackle this. The United Kingdom Presidency will review progress on this within the EU. We will also seek to phase out high-seas driftnets to protect dolphins. We hope other regions will see the need for similar solutions.

The fifth threat is marine mineral exploitation. We have created new offshore oil and gas industries. As the world develops, pressures to exploit marine mineral reserves will become even stronger. Sadly, we have not yet resolved the problems. For the areas beyond national jurisdiction, the International Seabed Authority must develop a robust system to reconcile access to these resources with effective protection. For areas within national jurisdiction, we need effective local solutions. There is wide agreement among experts on what should be done. We need to take action on that agreement.

The sixth threat is coastal development. Over half the world's population lives within the coastal zone. And ever larger numbers of us want to spend holidays by the sea. The Washington Global Programme provides a framework to tackle impacts on the marine environment from physical development by promoting integrated coastal zone management.

The seventh - and perhaps greatest - threat comes from climate change. As the Earth warms up, sea levels will rise, disrupting the lives of many millions of people living in coastal areas and threatening the very existence of some island nations. And we cannot yet easily predict the impact of climate change on ocean currents, where changes might have very dramatic effects on marine life and fisheries. The meeting on climate change at Kyoto - the Third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - represents a successful first step won through hard negotiation. But we must develop and build on the promise of Kyoto if we are effectively to tackle climate change. National governments must now draw up programmes of practical measures to meet their targets, a process which the United Kingdom is encouraging through its Presidency of the EU and the G8.

The United Kingdom Government is committed to safeguarding the world's biodiversity. Seven-tenths of the planet is sea. That is the scale of the task we face in tackling these seven threats to the seas. To get a full solution to protecting the richness of marine life, we have to work hard on all these fronts. The commitment to carry through all this work is what we need: nothing less will do to protect the seas.

The Rt. Hon. John Prescott, M.P. is Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions of the United Kingdom.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Freshwater 1998
Issue on Climate Change 1997
David Bellamy: Small is vulnerable (Small Islands) 1999
Frank A. Campbell: Whispers and waste (Small Islands) 1999
Michael Meacher: A stronger conscience (Looking Forward) 1999
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle (Climate & Action) 1998
Robin Cook: Everything to gain (Climate Change) 1997
Eileen B. Claussen: Critical coastlines (UNEP 25) 1997
Jane Lubchenco: Beware an ecological tsunami (Water) 1996
Omar Vidal and Walter Rast: Land and sea (Water) 1996
John Gummer: Valuing the environment (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996

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