Former UK foreign secretary David Miliband is urging the creation of a seagoing police force to bring order to the “wild west” free-for-all on the high seas that is damaging the health of the world’s oceans.
Miliband and the former Costa Rican president, Jose Maria Figueres, who together serve as co-chairs of the Global Oceans Commission, will formally unveil their ideas for ocean reform in a report next June.
But the two leaders have begun to sound out international reaction to a set of proposals for protecting oceans, from a crackdown on illegal fishing to a clean-up of the vast floating island of plastic in the Pacific and expanding marine protection zones.
The two men will preview their ideas at a high-level gathering in California on Tuesday organised by the Economist and National Geographic.
Bringing order to the high seas is critical to managing existing fish stocks and safeguarding the world’s food supply, Miliband said.
“The high seas are seriously under-governed,” Miliband said in an interview. “There are parts of the high seas that are certainly anarchic. There are parts of the high seas that look too much like the wild west.”
The commission is understood to be in discussions with Interpol about the deployment of an international ocean-police force.
Miliband said his vision of an ocean protection force would lean heavily on the deployment of new surveillance technologies to identify and track fishing vessels operating on the high seas, as well as their catch.
“If you are to have an enforcement regime, it needs to be policed,” Miliband said. But he cautioned: “It is not about having people in boats necessarily.”
Illegal fishing on the high seas is stripping oceans of fish stocks, and threatening a major food source for 1 billion people, mostly in the developing world.
Two-thirds of the fish taken on the high seas are from stocks that are already dangerous depleted – far more so than in those parts of the ocean that lie within 200 miles of the shore and are under direct national control.
Estimates of the unreported and illegal catch on the high seas range between US$10 billion to US$24 billion a year, overwhelming government efforts to track or apprehend the illegal fishing boats.
The illegal fishing makes it impossible for countries to manage sustainable fisheries and hurts responsible fishing crews.
Miliband said the commission was talking to the International Maritime Organisation about adopting new regulations to require all fishing vessels to be fitted with transponders.
The tracking devices would enable police forces to identify and track all vessels operating on the high seas, including those that venture illegally into marine protected zones or areas of depleted fish stocks.
“We are talking about relatively small number of vessels doing a large amount of damage. In a situation where those vessels are not marked you are obviously inviting trouble,” Miliband said. “Every fishing vessel should be identified.”
He said the enforcement effort, to be effective, must also extend to ports where fishing vessels land their catches.
“The ultimate thing is that you track the individual fish from where it is caught to where it sold … The middle men, the retailers who buy from fishermen and sell to supermarkets are obviously key to this,” Miliband said.
The coming years are expected to see growing competition for ocean resources – from offshore oil to seabed mining and prospecting for the global pharmaceutical industry.
The laws governing the high seas – which make up 45 per cent of the Earth’s surface – have not kept pace with those economic developments, or with the new reality of climate change.
The authority over oceans is divided up between nearly 50 separate international and regional organisations – including about a dozen under the United Nations. UN agencies have pushed for years for a voluntary registry for high seas fishing boats as well as tougher sanctions for those that break the rules. But those efforts have failed to gain much traction.
Meanwhile, the threats facing oceans are being multiplied by climate change. Sea water sucks up the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving climate change, throwing the entire ocean chemistry off balance.
Up to 40 per cent of the Arctic is now open water in the summer months, opening up potential new shipping lanes, offshore oil drilling, and commercial fishing – increasing the urgency for more effective governance of the oceans.
“You could do everything that is necessary within the high seas but if you don’t tackle climate change then you are still taking huge risk with the future of the oceans,” Miliband said.