Here I sit for the first time in a rather large conference room at the United Nations building in New York. I’m here for the final informal sessions developing draft text that will be the heart of negotiations next month in Rio at the World Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. As usual, I’m focused on ocean issues, emphatic about the fact that our oceans desperately need a global agreement to stop their ongoing destruction.
Oceans outside areas of national jurisdiction are being plundered by a handful of rich and technologically advanced nations at the expense of the rest of the World. Rio+20 is where we can stop this nonsense, and turn this deplorable situation around. To do that, we need nations to agree on a way forward.Here’s the kicker: In these negotiations to protect our global oceans, the US is opposing any meaningful progress — even though the vast majority of nations support saving our oceans.
And what do I mean by “saving our oceans”? Simple: we need to act on consensus scientific advice. This means creating a network of marine reserves that are off limits to fisheries and other extractive and destructive activities, which will allow marine life to flourish. The most direct way of getting this done is for world leaders at Rio+20 to agree to a process for a high seas biodiversity as articulated by agreement under the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). This includes a mechanism for the creation of marine reserves on the high seas.
This all sounds pretty straightforward as everyone recognizes the need and urgency so I have to ask, what’s the US thinking? Who’s tune is the administration dancing to?
The US has been outspoken in opposition to any agreement moving forward to protect our oceans. They cite several reasons to oppose starting a process to create marine reserves on the high seas even though, in our home waters, we are world leaders in creating marine reserves and fishery management.
Why we don’t show this same leadership in the international arena is a mystery as deep as the Mariana Trench.
The US government tells us that supporting a process within the framework of UNCLOS would harm the chances of the US Senate ratifying the Convention by bringing unwanted attention to it. Now wait a second; just last week the Obama Administration held a congressional hearing on UNCLOS urging the US Senate to ratify. I can only wonder how much more attention can a treaty get than a Senate hearing?
A second reason the US government tells us why they oppose any language in the Rio+20 text is that there is already enough international agreement to protect high seas biodiversity. We should, the government asserts, use these existing instruments rather than creating new ones. To add insult to injury, they then talk about having Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) take up the task of creating marine reserves. It doesn’t take a marine biologist (let alone a rocket scientist) to see the absurdity. International bodies charged with managing fisheries haven’t even been able to end overfishing — the one major task they are already failing to do! They have, however, been quite successful in bringing some fish stocks at the verge of collapse.
The final excuse the US gives us for opposing ocean protection at Rio+20 is not wanting to share any benefits coming from the exploitation of Marine Genetic Resources (MGR) . Who’s behind this position? Considering that the US is among the top three countries for MGR patent claims, it’s a good bet that the pharmaceutical industry has something to do with this.
Come on President Obama. Let’s not let Big Pharma or Big Fishery tell us what’s best for the world’s waters. Show some real leadership for protecting our global oceans. They deserve the same attention we’ve already given to our home waters.
Now that would be a sea change we could believe in!