By Emilie Devenport, MSc Marine Systems and Policies
Dr James Harrison kicked off the evening with a quote from Raymondi of Soncino, a Milanese envoy to the Americas in 1497; “the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.” The quote, he said, illustrated that humanity’s relationship with the ocean has, for centuries, been one of use and extraction, focusing on questions of how we use the Ocean? And how much we use?
We then reviewed the relatively recent changes in this relationship; from a drive to protect the oceans following the rise of environmentalism in the 60s to more recent discussions of sustainable development. UNEP, for example, are focusing on the concept of a Green Economy in a Blue World, allowing for continued growth while protecting the environment through sustainable resource use. As Dr Harrison pointed out, debates around sustainable development are all the more poignant when applied to the marine environment, where continued exploration and melting polar ice caps create ever-new frontiers.
Dr Laura Jeffrey subsequently introduced the concept of, and recent push towards, mega MPAs. Not limited to coastal or intertidal areas, the scope and purpose of MPAs, she demonstrated, have expanded to encompass broader stretches, and provide a range of benefits such as supporting coastal habitats and communities, as well as industry and recreation. The drive to create these Mega MPAs, she argued, is likely a desperate attempt by world leaders to reach the seemingly ever-elusive conservation targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity. While MPAs certainly have their advantages – greater area allows more individuals and species, especially large predatory species to be protected – an inevitable question remains, how can national MPAs, constrained by national boundaries, best protect species that are not defined by such boundaries? Opinion remains divided on MPAs; ecologists, for example, argue they divert attention from the real challenges and drivers, environmental NGOs highlight that their immense size and remoteness pose great challenges for surveillance and enforcement, risking the creation of merely ‘paper parks’, while it is seen as a form of social injustice, or ‘fortress conservation’ by social scientists.
Dr Harrison wrapped up the introductory lectures by reviewing the trade-offs between preservationists and those who favour sustainable development in the contemporary context of deep-sea mining. Although we have been aware of the existence of deep-sea minerals since the late 19th Century, the technology to exploit this resource has only developed in recent decades. Accordingly, we are currently in a position to protect this largely untouched resource and habitat, the deep-sea bed, and prevent its exploitation. The argument stands that as no one is using it, no one will miss it. Nevertheless, as ‘the Common Heritage of Mankind’ under the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), by conserving the seabed we are denying the benefits of deep-sea mining to those who could most use the resources and the money, a social injustice of sorts as mentioned by Dr Jeffrey. We then reviewed the case for allowing extraction in a sustainable manner, however, because of the nature of extraction, which can involve removing chunks of habitat, in many cases it is not possible to extract deep sea resources in a sustainable way. Here we are faced with a ‘new frontier’ scenario – our knowledge of the area remains limited, yet the little we do know indicates that many sea mounts are endemic habitats, and removing any part of them would be unsustainable, conflicting with our initial intention to avoid unsustainable practices. The question of how much do we use?, then becomes how much should we protect? And perhaps ultimately a question of how much damage to the marine environment are we willing to allow in order to gain from it? Our relationship with the ocean has remained very much one of use.
We then broke into smaller discussion groups to consider the 6 questions put to us by the lecturers, before re-joining as a whole to review our thoughts. Some interesting points were raised during the discussion and we concluded that applying concepts of sustainable development to the marine environment could serve to raise awareness of the need for environmental protection, and remove pressure from land-based resources. Nonetheless, there was concern that allowing increased development in the oceans could easily get out of hand with the potential for an out of sight, out of mind attitude. One group took a more pragmatic approach – arguing that it is simply a question of how we want to live our lives. They noted that societies in wealthy, more developed countries are unlikely to want to alter their lifestyles, and as such, discussions of creating green economies and sustainable development are unlikely to succeed without the desire for change.
Technological advancement was suggested as a way to overcome surveillance and enforcement issues inherent in large MPAs, however, as Dr Harrison pointed out, vessel tracking systems already exist, but do not inform us of the actions of the vessel. The need for ‘technological advancement’, therefore depends on what it is we are trying to monitor – if we are regulating against fishing, then tracking a boat can allow us to check their boat for fish at port, yet no such physical trail exists with illegal dumping at sea. Most groups also felt that creating MPAs would displace, rather than solve the driving causes of the problem that the area is being protected against. This led into discussions of the need for international agreements banning illegal activities on the high seas, and ways to incentivise non-signatory countries to take action by reducing potential markets for their products, i.e. reducing the buyers market for shark fins may help to reduce illegal shark finning.
Finally, we discussed how much, if any of the seabed should be opened to mining. Given the lack of knowledge surrounding the seabed habitats, groups were hesitant to provide exact figures. We discussed whether protected areas should be concentrated in one area or dispersed throughout the seabed, the matter complicated by secondary impacts of mining such as noise and light pollution that could disturb the marine life in the area. For one group the discussion was rather black and white – the question being whether to destroy the habitat or not, while another suggested taking an ecological economics approach rather than the traditional neo-classical economics route to determine the use of the seabed.
Overall the evening was an eye-opening experience into the depths of the ocean and our relationship with the marine environment.
Food for thought:
1. Is promoting a ‘green economy’ in a ‘blue world” the right message, given the outstanding sustainable development challenges we still face on land?
2. Is it humanly possible to zone, map, manage, and develop the ocean in such a way that ensures marine diversity and mega fauna are truly protected for current and future generations?
3. How can remote mega MPAs be effectively monitored and enforced?
4. Who should be entitled to determine when and where to designate MPAs?
5. Who should bear the burden of demonstrating that the environmental risks of seabed mining are acceptable or not?
6. How much of the seabed, if any, should be designated as a protected area, in which no exploitation should take place?