Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

WHEN the world you inhabit is beset by economic ills, the last thing a sensible society should do is ignore a valuable resource. When your country and continent are doing their best to develop and bring the good things in life to all of their people, the last thing they should do is forgo an opportunity to secure a more equal share of the world’s riches.

But ignoring a vast resource and forgoing a development opportunity are what we have been doing for too long with the world’s great ocean. I’m talking here about the international waters that begin 200 nautical miles off our coast and most other coasts.

For a South African, particularly one brought up in the Cape, where Atlantic and Indian Ocean waters mingle, these are odd words to write. We see the ocean every day, do we not? We taste the kingklip, we feel the salt spray, and the tills of our shops ring with tourist income posited on fine beaches with spectacular views.

These coastal waters we do know, and we govern them with increasing success. But go further offshore than the eye can see and you cross an invisible line. The water and the fish in them stop being South African and become — what exactly, and governed by whom, in whose interest, with what effect on our own bit of ocean?

These are some of the questions that led me a few months ago to accept the challenge of jointly chairing the Global Ocean Commission and to extend an invitation to host its first meeting in South Africa. I am pleased to say that my co-chairmen, former Costa Rican president José María Figueres and former UK foreign secretary David Miliband took up my invitation; and so on Thursday we will welcome our fellow commissioners from across the world, ranging from giant India to tiny Tokelau, to begin our work in Cape Town.

 

The global fish catch (blue line) has declined in recent years, even though
fleets are spending more effort (orange line) to find fish.
Source: Seas Around Us Project

The task we have set ourselves is to show how the ocean can be sustainably and equitably managed in the 21st century. Working independently, we will assess all the evidence we can muster, from sectors of society including science, economics, business and law. All these good ideas we will distil into what you might call a "to-do list" for world leaders — a list of pragmatic and efficient measures that, if implemented, will reverse degradation of the high seas and restore them to full health and productivity.

Securing the ocean’s benefits for future generations is a goal within the reach of humanity. But while many nations, including our own, are making improvements in their own waters, the big challenge and the big rewards lie in the high seas. The high seas make up two-thirds of the global ocean, covering almost half of the earth’s surface; they are an immense resource that in principle belongs to all of us, but in practice is exploited by a few — and, in some important ways, effectively managed by no-one. As we move towards a world of 9-billion people, all seeking the best life they can get, the deficits in high-seas governance and management have to be a concern because they directly affect what the ocean can provide.

Let us take food alone. At present, we obtain about 80-million tons a year of food from the ocean. Yet, already the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation calculates that half of the world’s fisheries are providing as much as they sustainably can, while a further one-third are being exploited beyond that limit, so must produce diminishing returns. That leaves only one-sixth where an increased yield is currently possible, which is not enough in a world where demand for food is rising. Indeed, we see fish catches slowly declining year after year, despite the extra effort that fleets are putting in.

Yet the ocean could provide more seafood, not less, if we managed it properly.

If you prefer your arguments in rand and dollars, consider this: five years ago, the World Bank concluded that world fisheries were underperforming to the tune of $50bn a year. Better management would harvest more dollars as well as more fish. And consider what we don’t know. Also about five years ago, an economics project running under the UN, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, concluded that deforestation was costing the global economy $2-trillion to $5-trillion a year. This is a number so staggering that even the most spectacular US or European banking collapse pales into insignificance. Worst, the effects fall disproportionately on the poor.

What, then, could the costs of degrading our ocean truly amount to?

The global ocean is about a lot more than seafood. Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies are increasingly looking to ocean life for biological and genetic resources that they can turn into products, just as mining companies are looking to the seabed for important metals. How can we make sure these processes are ecologically benign? How should benefits be shared by societies around our planet? In future, we may need to generate electricity in the high seas, or stimulate their capacity to ameliorate climate change. How should this be governed? Meanwhile, piracy — driven in part by overfishing — continues to be a scourge on shipping companies, while security agencies are increasingly aware that criminal gangs see illegal fishing boats as an easy way to transport arms, drugs and people. These are all reasons why we need to look harder at the waters over the horizon.

Across the world, including here in South Africa, people are clearly concerned. Survey results that we have just released indicate that global citizens feel they know little about the high seas, yet they are concerned for their potential to deliver for future generations. This is encouraging yet challenging for the commission. It is encouraging because our goal of a healthy and sustainably productive ocean is clearly one that the public shares, yet challenging because their concern produces an extra imperative for us to deliver.

In Cape Town this week, we will meet a varied community of people with an interest in the ocean, whether through fishing, shipping, conservation, security or other avenues. We will listen to what they have to say, as we will do globally as our work progresses. We need to be dynamic, because we are committed to publishing our recommendations for reform in the first half of next year and then making sure that governments, business and other actors take them on board.

So we will listen fast and listen well, and ensure that our recommendations balance the needs of high-seas users against the strong messages coming from the scientific and economic world.

That we formally begin our work on Human Rights Day is a fortunate coincidence, for the rationale behind this day also resonates with the commission’s work, on issues both individually tragic and globally significant. On an individual level, one of the places where slavery persists in our world is on illegal fishing vessels. The enslaved include some of our fellow Africans. On the most collective level, we are all dependent on goods and services that the global ocean provides, whether they be food, the regulation of climate and weather, trade, recreation — and the most fundamental of all, production of half of the oxygen we breathe.

If the commission’s work contributes to helping end individual tragedies and securing collective benefits, it will have been abundantly worthwhile. We can afford to ignore the high seas no longer; we must make them our business.

Manuel is minister in the Presidency responsible for planning and is co-chairman of the Global Ocean Commission.