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Opinion: Transformational opportunities for an equitable ocean commons

A frontier mentality has been a defining aspect of human history. Often this sentiment is optimistically framed in the language of aspirations and opportunities. But it can also be accompanied by unsavory narratives of over-exploitation, inequity, and conflict (1). If any place on Earth can be considered a final frontier, it is perhaps the ocean’s “areas beyond national jurisdiction” (ABNJ), which are both distant (generally starting some 370 km from coastlines) and vast (covering nearly 40% of the planet’s surface).

Joachim Claudet, Diva J. Amon, and Robert Blasiak; PNAS October 19, 2021 118 (42) e2117033118

 

Figure: To preserve the global ocean commons, we need to explicitly focus not just on scientific questions worthy of investigation but also on building up the capacity of emerging and future researchers. Image credit: Shutterstock / Le Quang Nhut.

 

A frontier mentality has been a defining aspect of human history. Often this sentiment is optimistically framed in the language of aspirations and opportunities. But it can also be accompanied by unsavory narratives of over-exploitation, inequity, and conflict (1). If any place on Earth can be considered a final frontier, it is perhaps the ocean’s “areas beyond national jurisdiction” (ABNJ), which are both distant (generally starting some 370 km from coastlines) and vast (covering nearly 40% of the planet’s surface). It is also the subject of ongoing United Nations negotiations for a treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity found in areas beyond national jurisdiction (typically shortened to BBNJ, https://www.un.org/bbnj/). However, if current trajectories of expansion of human activities in the ocean continue, we are at the crossroad of deciding whether this rapidly receding frontier will bring the economic and social benefits that drive progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Agenda or further cement global inequities.

 

Humanity has never benefited more from the ocean, but 60% of USD 1.8 trillion revenues of the eight main ocean-based sectors were accrued by just 100 corporations (3). Almost half of these are oil and gas companies headquartered in 13 countries, emphasizing the distance between today’s ocean economy and aspirations of a sustainable and equitable “blue economy” (4). Over the past 50 years, this concentration has been accompanied by accelerating growth in the diversity and scale of claims on the ocean’s food, material, and space, not only in coastal areas, but increasingly in international waters [the Blue Acceleration (5)]. For instance, industrial fishing fleets have expanded their focus to deeper and more distant waters—the landed catch of ABNJ fishing operations was valued at USD 7.6 billion in 2014, but only 47% of these operations would have been profitable without perverse subsidies (6). Elsewhere, the international seabed, which, together with its mineral resources, is considered the common heritage of humankind, is poised to shrink by some 37 million km2, twice the size of Russia, as a result of extended continental shelf claims that would bring these areas under national jurisdiction (5).

 

Frontiers are uncertain territory, characterized by high risks and high rewards. In the case of ABNJ, the financial and human capacity needed to participate are substantial and has encouraged a single-minded focus on production, leading to “blind spots” in the ocean economy that are perpetuating inequities, and are incompatible with international development agendas (7). Pivoting the current narrative of ABNJ away from this status quo will require a new operational logic. Here, we propose four transformational opportunities to reshape our relationship with the ocean and foster equity for people and nature, and we suggest two avenues for public and private sector actors to lead the way.

 

See: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/42/e2117033118

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