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Daily RC Article 187

Ocean's Predicament: Balancing Exploitation and Conservation in an Overlooked Realm


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Earth is poorly named. The ocean covers almost three-quarters of the planet…Were all the planet’s water placed over the United States, it would form a column of liquid 132 km tall. The ocean provides 3bn people with almost a fifth of their protein (making fish a bigger source of the stuff than beef). Fishing and aquaculture assure the livelihoods of one in ten of the world’s people.

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Humans have long assumed that the ocean’s size allowed them to put anything they wanted into it and to take anything they wanted out. ... By the middle of the century, the ocean could contain more plastic than fish by weight....

Firstly, the bulk of the ocean is beyond the horizon and below the waterline. The damage being done to its health is visible in a few liminal places. But for the most part, the sea is out of sight and out of mind.

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A second problem is governance. The ocean is subject to a patchwork of laws and agreements…Waters outside national jurisdictions – the high seas – are a global common. Without defined property rights or a community invested in their upkeep, the interests of individual actors in exploiting such areas win out over the collective interest in husbanding them.

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Third, the ocean is a victim of other, bigger processes. The emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is changing the marine environment along with the rest of the planet. The ocean has warmed by 0.7°C since the 19th century, damaging corals and encouraging organisms to migrate towards the poles in search of cooler waters. Greater concentrations of carbon dioxide in the water are making it more acidic. ...

“Ocean blindness” can be cured by access to information. Improvements in computing power, satellite imaging and drones are bringing the ocean into better view than ever before…As sea-floor soundings proliferate, the supervision of deep-sea mining should get better.



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Clearer information may also help align incentives and allow private capital to reward good behaviour. Insurance firms, for instance, have an incentive to ask for more data on fishing vessels; if ships switch off their tracking systems, the chances of collisions rise, and so do premiums. Greater traceability gives consumers who are concerned about fish a way to press seafood firms into behaving responsibly.

Policymakers are paying more attention to the state of the marine realm. But superior information does not solve the fundamental problem of enforcing property rights for the high seas. The effectiveness of incentives to take care of the ocean varies. Commercial pay-offs from giving fish stocks time to recover, for example, are large and well-documented; but the rewards that accrue from removing plastic from the high seas are unclear.

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Above all, better measurement of the effect of global warming on the ocean does not make a solution any easier. The Paris agreement is the single best hope we have as of now for protecting the ocean and its resources. But America is not strongly committed to the deal; it may even pull out. However, the limits agreed on in Paris will not prevent sea levels from rising and corals from bleaching. Indeed, unless they are drastically strengthened, both problems risk getting much worse.

This piece addresses the challenges facing Earth's oceans, emphasizing their vital role in providing sustenance to billions and the threats they face from human activities. The article highlights issues of plastic pollution, governance gaps, and the broader impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. Despite advancements in technology offering better ocean visibility, the lack of defined property rights for the high seas poses a significant challenge. The article explores the need for improved information, incentives, and global cooperation to address the complex issues plaguing the world's oceans, emphasizing the importance of the Paris Agreement in mitigating climate-related risks.
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