Gov’t inaction could cost us our oceans

A new report by the Global Ocean Commission states plainly that we have an environmental emergency on our hands, and world leaders must act now.


Fish hatchery

“So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

When The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams penned that phrase in his 1984 novel of the same name, he imagined a world where dolphins, a visiting and superior alien species, were leaving planet Earth en masse just as it was about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

In 2014, we’re fast approaching the point where we might soon be saying “so long” to both dolphins and fish as we continue to pollute and plunder the oceans that cover three-quarters of the planet and produce half its oxygen.

That warning came a little more than  a week ago from an international panel called the Global Ocean Commission, composed of prominent public and private figures including former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin. Led by former South African finance minister Trevor Manuel and former Costa Rican president José María Figueres, the panel also includes former officials of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

So this is hardly the Sierra Club of the High Seas. Its mandate calls for “politically and technically feasible short-, medium- and long-term recommendations” to tackle the issues of overfishing, large-scale habitat and biodiversity loss, and the ineffective management of high seas resources.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the man who presided over one of the greatest periods of Canadian austerity acknowledged that policies to protect the oceans will be expensive.

“But as with so many of these things,” Martin said, “the cost is infinitesimally small compared to what the alternative is.”


Ironically, one of the commission’s objectives is to draw greater attention to the critical decline of our oceans, yet despite Martin’s presence, Canadian media were deafeningly silent about the report. Not even the CBC picked up on the story, even though Canada has by far the longest coastline in the world, touching three oceans, and a fisheries industry that employs tens of thousands.

It’s not surprising that the Harper government was also silent about the report, given its antipathy for science, especially environmental science that might hinder or curtail the pursuit of oil and minerals under the ocean floor.

Indeed, the commission identifies rising demand for resources as one of the five key drivers of oceanic decline, along with technological advances, decimated fish stocks, climate and habitat loss, and weak governance, compliance and enforcement of rules that could slow or halt the destruction of the high seas.

We may not be far from a point where we will need to explain to our children the meaning behind the old expression, “there are plenty of other fish in the sea.” In fact, there are far fewer fish in our seas than in any other time in history, thanks to technological improvements that allow massive vessels to rape the ocean floors, destroying entire ecosystems while tossing much of the dead “bycatch” overboard.

In Canadian waters, there are currently 171 aquatic species identified as being “at risk,” from eels to whitefish to whales. Around the world, the commission notes, “the amount of wild-caught marine fish increased from three million tonnes in 1900 to 16.8 million in 1950, reaching a peak of 86.4 million tonnes in 1996, and since then has remained fairly constant at 80 million tonnes, while 87 per cent of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. Of the 17 largest fisheries around the world, 15 are either at maximum exploitation levels or are depleting the level of their fish resource base. According to reliable estimates, up to 100 million sharks are killed each year, predominantly for their fins.”

Fully 90 per cent of our largest fish are now gone, notes a commission video, and a report this week says that coral reefs in the Caribbean — and their sensitive ecosystems — will be completely gone within 20 years thanks to pollution and overfishing.


The contemporary high seas are much like the historic wild west, with two-thirds of the ocean currently outside the reach of any national jurisdiction. The commission is recommending that, among other things, member states of the United Nations adopt a Sustainable Development Goal that will establish internationally recognized rules for governing that common global resource.

That would require agreement on a whole series of policies, including international rules about environmental impact studies for energy or mineral exploration and exploitation in vulnerable marine areas that would supercede any local rules. That could mean, for example, that Canada’s approval of supertanker routes, coastal refineries and offshore oil exploration would no longer be subject to the whims of the government of the day but would have to meet international standards.

Don’t expect the Harper government government to do anything but obstruct efforts to set global standards, however, much as it has obstructed international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions while ramping up our own production of carbon gases via the Alberta tarsands.

Harper justifies these policies as protecting local employment and economic growth, but what is the point of protecting jobs that will cease to exist once we’ve drained the last bit of oil from the ground and made commercial fishing virtually unviable?

Scarcity “is the fundamental economic problem of having seemingly unlimited human wants in a world of limited resources.” It is the job of government to manage that scarcity, not to increase it, and the commission report is an ambitious attempt by some fairly conservative politicians to move us all in that direction.

The survival of the planet requires a sea change in public attitudes, and this report will hopefully mark a significant shift in the wind. ■

The Global Ocean Commission report can be downloaded here. You can sign a petition to support its objectives here.

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.