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Our Oceans: Are we looking at it all backwards?Deb Rowan Wright

Deb Rowan Wright
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Over many years working in ocean conservation, I’ve met people in fishing communities from Cornwall to Scotland, celebrity chefs, MPs, journalists, students, and scientists. We’ve discussed catch quotas, fishing gear, microplastics, aggregate dredging, by-catch, super-trawlers, and harmful state subsidies. I’ve learned about marine litter, EU law, dead zones, longlines, ghost fishing, beam trawling, and ocean acidification. I’ve written policy proposals, letters to MPs, magazine articles, scripts for short films, academic papers, and finally a book, Future Sea.

I’m certainly not alone in the struggle to keep the world’s oceans healthy and full of life. But despite all our efforts, the troubles at sea are more widespread and more acute than when we began.

In 2012 and 2013, as the debate continued between NGOs, government and industry over where to put Marine Conservation Zones in British waters, a simple but powerful thought struck me. Why were we battling to safeguard patches of the sea while perpetually accommodating the demands of industry? Why were some of us struggling to defend nature, while others assumed they had the right to exhaust and ruin it? Were we looking at it all backwards?

From that moment, I realised that we need to consider the sea from a whole new perspective. All ocean waters and the wildlife within them should be protected by default – because ‘protection’ doesn’t necessarily mean not using something at all; it can also mean using it well, so as not to damage or deplete it. Whoever uses the sea or takes its resources should only do so using methods that don’t pollute waters, empty them of fish and wildlife, or wreck coastal and underwater habitats. In other words, if business and industry can’t play nicely, they don’t get to play at all.

Nice theory. But can it ever become reality? To find out, my first stop was to dig into the law and find out what’s protected and what isn’t. At this point of the story, there came an unexpected twist. My legal diggings unearthed some very good news. It turns out that not only the sea around the British Isles, but all the seas and oceans in the world have been protected by international law since 1994. Specifically, by articles 61;117-120; 192-216; and 242-244 of the United Nations Law of the Sea.

Who knew this? Why hadn’t I known? Or apparently, the other people I’d worked with?

I was perplexed by this new information. If the law to protect it is already in place, why are the oceans in such trouble?

The answer is any law that is ignored, wasted, or unenforced is tantamount to no law at all. Since the Law of the Sea came into force, mostly, the 181 signatory countries have failed to implement or enforce the articles of the treaty intended to safeguard the sea and marine life. This means that insatiable industries have been allowed to operate unlawfully, on land and at sea for decades – and the damage is plain to see across the globe; warming and acidifying seas, increasingly noisy, overfished and polluted waters, the loss of undersea habitats, dwindling wildlife populations with some species on the brink of extinction, and plastic debris littering coasts and oceans from Greenland to the Pacific.

Picture a gang of rowdy thieves ransacking a house, shooting the dog, bulldozing the garden and dumping waste everywhere while police officers sit in the kitchen sipping tea and discussing the weather.

The world’s oceans have been under attack on many fronts for decades – yet all along we’ve had the means to prevent it. All along we’ve had the solution in easy reach. It is simply for countries to honour their treaty obligations and put the law into action.

Lately the outlook has become a little brighter, with new plans and pledges to do more for oceans and their wild inhabitants. A few governments are waking up like fairytale beasts stirring after decades of heedless slumber. In 2020 for instance, leaders of the 14 member countries of the Ocean Panel announced a joint commitment to sustainably manage all human activity in waters under their national jurisdictions by 2025: this represents a total area of almost 30 million sq. km. Another important development is the emergence of an international agreement to protect biodiversity in ocean waters – known as “the high seas” which lie beyond the jurisdiction of coastal countries. The Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions Treaty (BBNJ) is en route, although it’s been delayed by Covid. Elsewhere, the number of marine reserves and marine protected areas (MPAs) is growing and some are vast, such as the Ross Sea MPA in Antarctica, and Marae Moana and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which are in the Pacific.

This is all good news, but I can’t let go of the fact that all of the sea, whether inside national or outside national jurisdictions, should already be safe from over-plunder and pollution. The international campaign, 30 × 30: A Blueprint For Ocean Protection is gaining momentum and we’ll be celebrating when the target of 30 percent protection by 2030 is reached. But 70 percent of the oceans will still be unlawfully unprotected.

Just because countries haven’t put those protective articles of law into practice before, doesn’t mean they can’t work together and do it now. Logic and law say we should be protecting all of the oceans, not just a third of them. Isn’t it time to put things right and make the target 100 percent protection?

Take Action

Most people already know about the importance of cutting out single-use plastics, so here are four other key actions to take.

  1. Support a marine conservation organisation. Some specialise in a particular aspect of conservation, such as protecting turtles, like the Olive Ridley Project. Others have a broader scope, including influencing government policy, such as Surfers Against Sewage in the UK.
  2. Learn more about the sea and marine life, about conservation projects, and why healthy oceans are so important – be inspired, motivated, talk to friends and family and get them interested too.
  3. Read labels before buying products. Most sunscreen creams for example, contain chemicals which kill marine life. They are; Oxybenzone; Octinoxate; Octocrylene; PABA (Aminobenzoic Acid);Enzacamene; Octisalate; Homosalate; and Avobenzone. Use a ‘reef-safe’ cream, or cover-up and stay in the shade.
  4. Avoid farmed salmon and warm-water farmed prawns and shrimp, because of the serious environmental damage caused by their production.


Deb Rowan Wright is a UK-based author and researcher on ocean conservation policy. She has worked with Whale & Dolphin Conservation, Greenpeace, and Marinet. Her work on marine renewable energy, ocean governance reform, and public-trust law has been published by among others,  the International Whaling Commission, and the Ecologist.

 Her book, ‘Future Sea: How to rescue and protect the world’s oceans’, questions the reasoning behind current approaches to ocean conservation and presents a radical alternative.