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How Did the Oceans Do at Rio+20?

July 2, 2012

I’m just catching up on the progress (or lack thereof) that was made for responsible ocean management at Rio+20.  I’m finding there’s plenty of superficial analysis, so I thought I’d spend some time to dig deeper.

But first, some summarization.

Generally, most environmentalists feel that the Rio+20 Summit was a bust.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t get anything out of it.  By one leading environmentalist’s account, we may have made important progress through all the voluntary commitments made by companies.

Specifically looking at the oceans, we might say that some progress was might, but that it was far below what should have been achieved with all that money, time, and effort.  After all, the past 20 years have been a failure for the oceans.

In my digging, I came across this excellent video analysis over at Oceans Inc.  It features Duncan Currie and Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (bios here), Dr. Alex Rogers of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and Oxford University (bio), and Kristina Gjerde of the High Seas Alliance and IUCN (bio).

Duncan Currie nicely lays out a full set of issues that were tackled in varying degrees in the final text of the Rio+20 Declaration. In order of mention, they are: overfishing, IUU, transparency and accountability at RFMOs, harmful subsidies, recognizing MPAs as important conservation tools, and protecting high seas biodiversity.

I thought I’d take a look at the Rio+20 declaration to see what this progress or lack thereof really looks like in the section covering ‘Oceans and seas’, paragraphs 155 through 177. In all, I found the progress to be…well…miniscule.

The best, as Duncan Currie points out in the video above, is found in paragraph 168:

168. We commit to intensify our efforts to meet the 2015 target as agreed to in JPOI to maintain or restore stocks to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis. In this regard we further commit to urgently take the measures necessary to maintain or restore all stocks at least to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield, with the aim of achieving these goals in the shortest time feasible, as determined by their biological characteristics. To achieve this we commit to urgently develop and implement science based management plans, including by reducing or suspending fishing catch and effort commensurate with the status of the stock. We further commit to enhance action to manage bycatch, discards, and other adverse ecosystem impacts from fisheries including by eliminating destructive fishing practices. We also commit to enhance actions to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from significant adverse impacts including through the effective use of impact assessments. Such actions, including those through competent organizations, should be undertaken consistent with international law, the applicable international instruments and relevant General Assembly resolutions and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Guidelines. [bold added]

The recommitment and intensification to end population overfishing is fine and was to be expected.  The second sentence, however, appears to be something new in international law as the feasibility of stock rebuilding is to be ostensibly judged solely on biological characteristics, not the socio-economic situation.

On IUU, I found the progress essentially non-existent.  Perhaps I’m missing something in the peculiarities of international IUU negotiations, but the main emphasis of the text was on recommitting to goals already agreed in 2002 at Johannesburg or through international treaty negotiations.

170. We acknowledge that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing deprive many countries of a crucial natural resource and remain a persistent threat to their sustainable development. We recommit to eliminate IUU fishing as advanced in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and to prevent and combat these practices including through the following: developing and implementing national and regional action plans in accordance with the FAO’s international plan of action to combat IUU fishing; implementing—in accordance with international law—effective and coordinated measures by coastal States, flag States, port States and chartering nations and the States of nationality of the beneficial owners and others who support or engage in IUU fishing by identifying vessels engaged in IUU fishing and by depriving offenders of the benefits accruing from IUU fishing; as well as cooperating with developing countries to systematically identify needs and build capacity, including support for monitoring, control, surveillance, compliance and enforcement systems.

171. We call upon States that have signed the FAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing to expedite procedures for its ratification with a view to its early entry into force.  [bold added]

The text on RFMO transparency and accountability wasn’t terrible, but then again, RFMOs have pretty much already agreed that review processes are best practice and conducted such reviews (see here, here, here, and here).

172. We recognize the need for transparency and accountability in fisheries management by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). We recognize the efforts already made by those RFMOs that have undertaken independent performance reviews, and call on all RFMOs to regularly undertake such reviews and make the results publicly available. We encourage implementation of the recommendations of such reviews and recommend that the comprehensiveness of those reviews be strengthened over time, as necessary.

On high seas biodiversity, I found the text terribly weak, just as Gjerde says in the video above.  There is a commitment to eventually make a decision.  Lovely stuff.

162. We recognize the importance of the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction. We note the ongoing work under the UN General Assembly of an Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction. Building on the work of the ad hoc working group and before the end of the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly we commit to address, on an urgent basis, the issue of the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction including by taking a decision on the development of an international instrument under UNCLOS. [bold added]

Nothing spectacularly different on harmful fishing subsidies either.  With the Doha Round stalled, states’ only option is to proceed through another process outside of the WTO.

173. We reaffirm our Johannesburg Plan of Implementation commitment to eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and overcapacity taking into account the importance of this sector to developing countries, and we reiterate our commitment to conclude multilateral disciplines on fisheries subsidies which give effect to the WTO Doha Development Agenda and the Hong Kong Ministerial mandates to strengthen disciplines on subsidies in the fisheries sector, including through the prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, recognising that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation, taking into account the importance of the sector to development priorities, poverty reduction, and livelihood and food security concerns. We encourage States to further improve the transparency and reporting of existing fisheries subsidies programmes through the WTO. Given the state of fisheries resources and without prejudicing the WTO Doha and Hong Kong Ministerial mandates on fisheries subsidies nor the need to conclude these negotiations, we encourage States to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, and to refrain from introducing new such subsidies or from extending or enhancing existing such subsidies. [bold added]

Ultimately, I’m left thinking that the international ocean experts in the video above were being far too kind to Rio+20.  This just isn’t progress by any stretch of the imagination.

So this is what we have to show for all the efforts to put together this conference?  No new timetables, reaffirmation of unfulfilled pledges, and no plan for a much needed implementing agreement for high seas biodiversity. Given the pace of progress we’ve seen at the UN, it seems to me that, to a large extent, healthy oceans will not be found through international negotiations  and that it’s time for the environmental community to better engage the industries that are most exploiting them, rather than continue to clamor for governments and multilateral institutions to do the right thing.

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