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What Are the High Seas and Why Should We Care About Them?

The high seas are facing a cycle of declining ecosystem health and productivity. It is our joint responsibility to act urgently and decisively to reverse the decline of this immense global commons. Failure to do so would be an unforgivable betrayal of current and future generations. Source: Global Ocean Commission Report 2014

Whether you call them the ‘High Seas,’ the ‘Bounding Main,’ ‘International Waters’, or areas beyond ‘national jurisdiction,’ the open ocean far from land has always drawn people on voyages of discovery, trade, conquest, war or pure adventure. This article introduces readers to the definition, location, governance, benefits and challenges of these distant waters and briefly describes how the 2014 Ocean Health Index will evaluate them. Interested readers will find a companion article about the deep sea here.

People are last in an ancient series of long-distance ocean travelers, such as albatrosses, whales, sea turtles, arctic terns, turtles, tunas, billfishes, sharks and many others, which may travel thousands of watery miles to feed and breed. Guided by the sun, stars, wind and water currents, smell or taste, internal magnetic compasses, variations in ocean sound and other senses, these globetrotters routinely find their way through earth’s most distant waters and back home again.    

Sub-adult wandering albatross in flight. Drake Passage, December 2006.
The wandering albatross, with a wingspan approaching 12 feet, spends most of its life flying over the Southern Ocean feeding at night on squid, small fish and krill, and only coming to terra firma every year or two to breed on sub-Antarctic islands.      

But all those ocean wanderers lack one kind of navigational awareness that has become necessary since human nations arose---the ability to know who owns the ocean, a concept completely foreign to those species.  

Most animals temporarily maintain and defend some type of space, even if it is only a nest site, the dynamic space around a female, or a feeding site. But only a few defend large home ranges, because it requires too much energy.   Nonetheless, all these species, and many more, are part of complex marine ecosystems that make up the ‘ocean space’ in which people conduct their activities. That awareness is the foundation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982), the overarching treaty for managing human activities in the ocean. The resolution creating UNCLOS, UNGA Resolution 2750 C (XXV), explicitly recognizes the interdependence of  people, ocean life, economics, politics, science and  technology, emphasizing that all must be considered as a whole within a framework of close international cooperation.

Our cultures and need for materials that are traded as commodities makes us humans different. As ocean trade routes began carrying more valuable cargoes, nation-states built navies to defend them, as well as to discover, conquer and colonize new territories, and to control the ocean surrounding or connecting them with the homeland.  At first, crudely mapped and defined mainly by what could be defended, maritime claims grew steadily more detailed as navigational techniques improved until the development of modern maritime zones was codified in the (third) UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982).

Maritime zones under UNCLOS.  The figure does not show internal waters landward of baselines.    

Source: http://www.safety4sea.com/maritime-zones-in-the-mediterranean-sea-16801

These zones are however of little importance to marine species, save for differences in the amount of protection they might receive in different Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) or High Seas areas owing to local laws, customs or the effectiveness of law enforcement. However, they are of great importance to each country (or “States" as they are referred to in UNCLOS), as they specify what rights nations have to control various resources and uses, and what rights other nations have to navigate and pass through, fish etc.

But, as the light blue color on the map below shows, EEZs encompass less than 40 percent (approximately 130 million square kilometers) of Earth’s approximately 360 million square kilometers of ocean surface. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) generally extend 200 nautical miles from coastal baselines (and can be enormous in the case of ‘archipelagic’ States). However sometimes they are smaller,  for example in the Mediterranean Sea where claims to 200 nm would often overlap. And they can potentially be larger, extending as far as 350 nautical miles (563 km) from shore if a State can prove that its continental shelf extends that far seaward.  In any case, each State has the authority to manage (among other things) the ‘environment’ and ‘living marine resources’ in its EEZ water column and on the floor of the continental shelf below. States have had particular interest in claiming extended ‘territory’, ‘EEZs’ and ‘continental shelf’ in the Arctic Ocean, because recent declines in sea ice extent bring the potential for discovering large reserves of oil, gas, or mineral resources that are thought to exist there. 

Map of international watersin the world.  

It is the other ~60% of the ocean, shown as dark blue, that interests us here.  These are the High Seas, and even though they represent about 46% of our planet’s surface (230 million square kilometers of Earth’s approximately 510 million square kilometer surface area), no State owns them and they are truly ‘International Waters’; they are to be shared equally by all 7 + billion humans on earth.

Who manages the High Seas?

The High Seas begin where national oversight of the ocean ends. Since they are beyond national jurisdiction responsibility for coordinating management falls largely to a complex network of organizations created through international treaties between States – with States largely retaining the responsibility for implementing management responsibilities. As ‘flag-States’ it’s their responsibility to exercise control over their vessels and citizens. For example, all vessels must fly the flag of their ‘flag-State’ or else they may be treated as ships without nationality. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), entered into force in 1994, has been ratified by most countries (though notably not by the United States of America), and is recognized by most States as reflecting customary international law of the sea. 
All of the organizations shown in the diagram are created by treaties and each includes membership from the States party to those treaties. The costs  and logistics of  organizing official deliberations with so many participants places limits on the issues considered, as well as the rate of decision-making and subsequent implementation of decisions.  There are different values, interests, and objectives of the member States, which may add further complications.  Moreover, with States loathe ceding control over their citizens and vessels. Additionally, there are limits on the ability of international bodies to monitor activities or enforce treaty obligations.  One example lies in managing fisheries; where illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing may be responsible for catching between 11 and 26 million metric tons — that is up to one-quarter of the world’s total catch from marine capture fisheries, with associated annual economic losses ranging between $10 to $24 billion. 

Diagram of international ocean governance showing sectoral approach and plethora of organizations.  

Source: Global Ocean Commission Report 2014.  Also see The Economist.

The existing high seas governance framework is weak, fragmented and poorly implemented. Different bodies regulate different industries and sectors, and in many cases, modern principles of ecosystem-based management, precaution and the application of the polluter-pays principle have yet to be brought to bear.

Current ocean governance arrangements do not ensure sufficient protection for high seas biological diversity, nor do they foster the sustainable and equitable use of marine living resources.         
Source: Global Ocean Commission Report 2014.

What benefits to the High Seas provide?

And why should we care about them?

The world’s fleet of container ships, tankers, freighters, military vessels, cruise ships and others take mostly manufactured goods, food, oil and other necessities, as well as people, across the thousands of miles of ocean that separate the continental land masses. You can see the real-time locations for many ships at www.vesselfinder.com.

One of the Maersk fleet’s 20 Triple E ships.  Triple Esignifies Efficiency, Economy of Scale and Environmentally Improved.  The huge ships are 1,312 ft (400 m) long and 194ft (59 m) wide.  By using large, slowly rotating propellers and steaming relatively slowly (23 knots) the ships burn 37% less fuel and half the amount of carbon dioxide per container moved.  

Source: Maersk

Global ship traffic. Busy as it is, the diagram actually understates the amount of ship traffic, because it represents the tracks of only about 11% of the 30,851 merchant ships larger than 1000 gross tons that were at sea in 2005. 

Source: Halpern et al. 2008.

While far at sea, hours or even days can pass without much sight of marine life either, save an occasional seabird, dolphin, or school of flying fish. But if you could look through the surface into the water column, especially where diverging currents cause upwelling that increases plankton production and where convergent currents concentrate marine life, it would be possible to see places teeming with the organisms that provide the main benefits that High Seas areas offer: seafood such as tuna, billfish (e.g. swordfish, sailfish, and marlin) and others that make up between 10 to 15 percent of the total global catch; iconic species of special significance to people, such as whales or sharks, other representatives of the hundreds of thousands of marine animals and plants that make up ocean biodiversity.

Other benefits evaluated by the Ocean Health Index, such as Mariculture, Natural (Non-Food) Products, Opportunities for Artisanal Fishing and Coastal Protection don’t occur there and therefore can’t be evaluated. Two other goals, Tourism & Recreation, and Livelihoods & Economies, have a presence on the High Seas, as represented by the cruise ships or merchant ships transiting their waters. However, the benefits of those activities accrue to countries where the trips originate and visit, not to the open ocean itself. Accordingly, the jobs, wages and revenue associated with the construction, port operations, crew, cargo or tourists of every ship sailing the High Seas are accounted for in the coastal countries or territories where those activities take place. The High Seas provide the pathway for such activities, but do not confer or receive positive value from them, though indeed they may receive negative impacts such as pollution, noise or others.

Thus the Ocean Health Index only evaluates High Seas waters for three goals: Food Provision (represented by Wild Caught Fisheries, since there is at present no High Seas Mariculture; Sense of Place—the ocean’s intangible benefits to cultural, traditional, spiritual and aesthetic values---represented by Iconic Species; and Biodiversity (represented by its Species subgoal). We were not able to evaluate the health of seafloor habitats due to the absence of reliable data. The 2014 Ocean Health Index, scheduled for release in the final quarter of 2014, will reveal, for the first time, the scores for those goals in the High Seas portions of the 15 FAO Statistical Areas that contain them (Antarctic regions were evaluated separately).

Climate regulation: a further benefit

The High Seas (and the Deep Sea) provide one other global benefit, climate control, but in ways that the Ocean Health Index does not currently evaluate. Surface waters absorb the heat in sunlight striking the planet’s surface, storing and transporting around the planet in both surface waters and to the deep sea via wind and water currents, thereby moderating the climate of both terrestrial and marine areas. Oceans also absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, moderating the rate of global warming, but also contributing to ocean acidification. Certain plankton animals, especially Pteropods, Foraminiferans and Coccolithophores, moderate the rate of acidification by taking up some of the carbon to make their calcium carbonate shells. 

Calcium carbonate shells of various Foraminiferans, single-celled amoeba-like animals that feed by extending pseudopods through holes in their shells.  

Source: Geomarine Research, New Zealand.

After death, the shells of these little animals sink to become part of the sediment covering much of the seafloor and sequestering the carbon they contain for a very long time. Unfortunately, increasing sea water acidity makes it harder for these organisms to form shells, so their role in climate moderation could decrease in coming years.

The oceans and their fringing habitats—mangrove forests, sea grasses and salt marshes---have together, and in equal measures, taken up about one-third of all the carbon dioxide that humans have emitted by burning fossil fuels.  The Ocean Health Index assesses the ability of those fringing habitats to continue storing carbon by measuring changes in their extent and condition, but changes in the open ocean’s ability to store carbon cannot yet be assessed because measurements are not yet sufficiently sensitive, frequent and widespread.  

The ocean was once thought too big to be affected by people, but now we have recognized that there are impacts throughout the ocean along every coast in every EEZ.  The ocean’s resources were also thought to be boundless.  For example, in inaugural address to the 1883 Fisheries Convention in London, the great English biologist, T.H. Huxley, acknowledged that nearshore fisheries, for oysters or salmon, for example, could be depleted, but went on to state:  “I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case, to be useless.”  Today the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 87% of the world’s fisheries are overexploited or fully exploited.

We don’t know what the future will bring to the High Seas. Will they continue to be a reliable source of food?  Will people try to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and amplify food webs by fertilizing the ocean with iron, nitrogen or phosphorus to increase plankton productivity? Will industrial production of oil or minerals expand into High Seas areas? Those decisions will affect the High Seas and many other aspects of life on earth, so they will require careful deliberations by all of the agencies charged with managing the High Seas.

And even though the High Seas are far away, there are things we can each do in our daily lives to help them continue to provide the benefits on which we all rely:

1. Eat only sustainably caught/produced seafood. Check out the Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council.

2. Reduce our personal carbon footprint.

3. Reduce, reuse, recycle to prevent pollution from reaching our oceans

4. Be an informed Consumer. Use our purchasing dollars to support environmentally friendly and socially responsible companies: Check out the GoodGuide.