The oceans are a prime example of these problems. They are used for economic activity, recreation, and sustenance by people in many nations of the world. At the same time, they are also damaged by people in those nations. Belonging to no one nation, however, oceans can be considered the “common heritage of mankind” (Basler, 1998).

Yet, if no one nation owns them and is responsible for taking care of the oceans as a coherent ecosystem, how can they be protected? This is referred to as the “tragedy of the commons,” that is, a resource that is owned by no one but used by everyone will eventually become hopelessly damaged because no one will take responsibility for protecting it (Hardin, 1968). Each user will assume that someone else will be responsible, and, thus, no one becomes responsible.

This is a tragedy, too, because of the reliance of all human beings on the oceans. Covering about 70 percent of the earth’s surface, oceans play a vital role in the environment and economic activity throughout the world. According to the United Nations Atlas of the Oceans, “Oceans are a highly productive system which continuously recycles chemicals, nutrients and water through the ‘ hydrological cycle,’ which powers climate and weather, and which regulates global temperature by acting as a giant heat reservoir from the sun”(UN, 2012).

Additionally, oceans are the basis for a wide variety of industrial, commercial, and recreational activities, such as fisheries, shipping, and sailing. Finally, livable coastal marine areas are important—as of 2012, 44 percent of the world’s population resides within 62 miles (100km) of an ocean coast.This is more people than even inhabited the planet in 1950. This number is continually increasing; since 1970, an average of 2000 homes has been built daily in coastal areas (UN, 2011).

Various kinds of pollution make their way into oceans from many sources, including sewage, agricultural runoff, oil spills, chemical emissions, and non-biodegradable litter (that is, litter that will not degrade naturally). Unsustainable consumption of living marine resources (fishing) is another pressing problem. UNEP reports “an almost inexorable global trend towards increasingly intense exploitation and depletion of fisheries stocks, three-quarters of which are maximally exploited…” (UNEP, 2011).

Also, through dredging to create ports, waste dumps, construction, and recreation, coastal areas have been significantly disturbed and reshaped for human purposes. Scientists estimate that nearly 10 – 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been permanently lost; while an astounding 70 percent are threatened, with damage often attributable simply to direct physical destruction (Coral Reef, 2007). Coral reefs are lost at a rate currently higher than rainforest depletion, and studies suggest that up the Indo-Pacific Ocean loses 3168 square kilometers (1223 square miles) of coral cover annually. This loss is the equivalent to the size of 450 fields(Pareti, 2008).

According to recent data, in 2012, up to 13 percent of the world’s fisheries, which provide 15 percent of the dietary intake of animal protein have “collapsed” due to commercial over exploitation. The leading cause of coral and marine degradation is the burning
of fossil fuels which increases the acidic nature of the ocean, damaging fragile ecosystems. Fortunately, the intervention of governments and private organizations is having a positive impact on reversing this trend (CBD, 2012).

Recently, one of the largest environmental disasters took place, the 2010 BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was the largest oil spill in the history of the U.S., with numerous negative impacts on marine ecosystems and coastal economies. The extent of the long term effects is still unknown. However, this disaster was largely publicized, making the public more aware of the vulnerability of ecosystems, the negative effects of oil dependency, and the necessity of making a transition to clean energy.

The tragedy of the commons has only led to a hodgepodge of ocean protection treaties. The primary treaties are the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and fisheries agreements, including the UN Fish Stocks Agreement and Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, as well as some anti-pollution measures such as the London Dumping Convention, Basel Convention, and the Global Programme of Action, that have provision on maritime issues.

In 1999, however, the international community undertook a four-year fact-finding mission called the Global International Waters Assessment. The goal of this initiative is to comprehensively clarify the environmental state of oceans, the sources of damage to oceans, and possible future scenarios for their protection. In 2006, GIWA released its final report highlighting the following problems: freshwater shortage, pollution, overfishing and other threats to aquatic living resources, habitat and community modification, and global change.

To read the report, click here: http://www.unep.org/dewa/giwa/publications/finalreport/giwa_final_report.pdf.



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