Africa must protect the high seas before it’s too late

If the past year has taught us anything, it is that we must not underestimate the power of the natural world. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a tragedy of untold proportions, and a clarion call to us that we must work harder to protect nature and live in harmony, not at odds, with it.

For many people, the notion of protecting nature in Africa conjures up visions of sweeping national parks, game reserves teeming with the Big Five and stretches of golden coastlines where turtles nest while brightly coloured fishes punctuate the clear waters. Of course, they are right: the biodiversity we are blessed with in Africa is abundant and there is much good work being done to ensure its safety and longevity. 

But there is one last great wilderness that most of us will never see, and most likely have never thought much about. This great wilderness begins 200 nautical miles off our African shores, it covers half of the planet, and it is the last great global commons — the high seas. 

As we celebrate World Ocean Day, it is vital we recognise the importance of protecting areas beyond our national jurisdiction. Historically, a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the protection of this expanse — and limited public awareness of just how vital a healthy ocean system is — has, at best, fuelled disinterest and, at worst, let a small minority exploit its resources and decimate its biodiversity. But it is no exaggeration to state that our lives depend on safeguarding the high seas, even in landlocked countries like my own.

Why the high seas matter to Africa

It is thought that scientists know more about outer space than they do the high seas, with some estimating that we are still unaware of 91% of the living organisms that exist in this largely unexplored ecosystem. So murky is our knowledge, that even some of the species that we do know of seem almost mythical, such as the giant squid, the largest of which was recorded at more than 13 metres long, or the whitemargin stargazer, which can sting prey with up to 50 volts. And although these alien-like creatures might seem interesting but unimportant to us in Africa, this could not be further from the truth. 

To date, about 34000 organisms have been discovered in the high seas that could potentially be used in medical and food developments. So far, discoveries in the high seas have included eight marine-based drugs, five of which are cancer treatments; and the discovery of one form of alga that can be used to fortify canola oil, an increasingly popular staple in Africa.

However, at present there is no legally binding framework in place to stop wealthier nations or private companies controlling these discoveries, patenting them and preventing developing countries from accessing their benefits. 

The same is true of fishing in the high seas. It is monopolised by fewer than a dozen countries, with little regulation, and is rarely equitably shared. In fact, it is estimated that the worldwide value of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing catches is between $4.9-billion and $9.5-billion, and up to 30% of such fishing ($1.2-billion) occurs beyond national jurisdiction. 

But more than just providing a minority with financial benefit, overfishing in the high seas has a direct effect on stocks within neighbouring countries’ exclusive economic zones. This has a disproportionate effect on developing countries in which dependency on fisheries for food, livelihoods and revenues is high.

Without a strong, global, legally binding framework not only will developing countries continue to be denied access to natural resources in the high seas, but the high seas ecosystem will continue to be drastically compromised. This will have significant effects on domestic fish stocks, climate change and sea levels; and, by extension, a direct effect on our livelihoods and health — even if, like me, you are sitting in a landlocked country. 

The current UN High Seas Treaty under negotiation aims, for the first time, to establish guidelines “for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction”. This would include a framework to establish a well-connected and representative network of marine protected areas, rigorous and independent environmental impact assessment of ongoing and future activities on the high seas, and clear funding mechanisms that do not marginalise developing countries. 

Over the next six months we have a chance to drastically change the way we engage with the high seas and their ecosystem. As Africans, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to engage fully in the ongoing negotiations for a high seas treaty to ensure that this last great wilderness is protected and restored, and that the ocean’s abundant resources are distributed equally and sustainably. 

To put it simply, if we do not protect the high seas collectively and globally, the repercussions will be catastrophic — biologically, economically and almost certainly geopolitically.

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