Obama’s Ocean Gambit

Obama just created a Pacific Ocean reserve almost twice the size of Texas to curb fishing and oil drilling. But it might be too little too late.

Photo by Torsten Blackwood
Photo by Torsten Blackwood

The world’s most obvious crises — Ebola, the Islamic State, the mysterious Khorasan Group — lie on land. But turmoil is also roiling the seas.

U.S. President Barack Obama recognized this reality last month when he massively expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument near Johnston Atoll, Wake Atoll, and Jarvis Island, strips of land that had been used as U.S. military airfields and refueling docks during World War II and nuclear testing in the 1950s. In a bid to preserve biodiversity, the remote 490,000-square-mile area — so remote that even Google Maps has yet to properly catalog it — will remain off-limits to commercial fishing and oil drilling and will become the world’s largest ocean preserve.

Surprisingly, it was President George W. Bush who created the national monument during his final weeks in office. But Obama has increased its size nearly six times over, stretching it out to nearly twice the size of Texas. Obama’s gesture, grand as it is, shows how neglected the oceans are: The fact that he could sextuple the size of an ocean preserve with barely a squawk from Republicans prone to grousing about the creation of national monuments on land suggests that few know or even care about the oceans.

That’s understandable. Most people rarely see the ocean, unless they’re at the beach or 30,000 feet up in the air, even though water covers about three-quarters of the planet. Yet the oceans’ problems — overfishing, pollution, coral reef loss, acidification — are multiplying. And the world’s reliance on the ocean for fish and other resources will increase as the global population grows and technology for shipping and oil drilling advances.

To understand why our abuse of the oceans is so dangerous, it is worth understanding how much the oceans are worth — a question that the consulting firm McKinsey recently took a crack at answering. Martin Stuchtey, a McKinsey sustainability director, found that if the oceans were a continent, they would provide services worth $3 trillion a year, conservatively. Of that, roughly $1.4 trillion comes from oil and gas, and the rest from fishing and tourism, as well as other services such as diluting our pollution and moderating the climate.

Given the ocean’s central role in our global economy, the state of its overall health should terrify us all. In an annual report card issued Sept. 30, scientists gave the world’s oceans a D grade for health. ("I think many people are surprised that the score is that good," the managing director of the report card, called the Ocean Health Index, remarked to National Geographic.) Of particular note are figures on overfishing: Some 87 percent of global fish stocks are depleted or in serious trouble, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Of the world’s 17 largest fisheries, 15 are at or over capacity — and keep in mind that the world’s population is expected to grow by another 2 billion by 2050.

The worst culprits contributing to this crisis are developed countries, with their vast fleets and technological prowess. Ten countries — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Spain, the United States, Chile, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and France, in descending order — account for 70 percent of the fishing by value in the high seas, the vast and anything-goes expanse that lies beyond any country’s offshore control, according to a June report from the Global Ocean Commission. Created in 2013 to push for better governance of the seas, this international body has netted some big names, including former Costa Rican President José María Figueres and former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Large fish, like tuna and swordfish, have been decimated by overfishing. As fishing fleets grow more adept and venture even farther into the sea, things will get worse.

The seas are also getting filthy — again a result of humans. A 2009 U.S. Geological Survey study estimated that the amount of mercury in the northern Pacific is expected to rise 50 percent by 2050, as Pacific Rim countries ramp up coal use and production in factories. This presumably means that the tuna left in the sea by then may carry even more of the neurologically toxic metal. Plastic pollution is also a huge concern, as is phosphorous.

The mother of all problems, of course, is climate change, which is not only causing sea levels to rise, but is making ocean waters warmer and more acidic too. According to the Global Ocean Commission, the oceans are warming faster than at any time in the past 300 years. From June through August of this year, global ocean surface temperatures hit a record of 1.13 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century, according to U.S. government scientists. And we may be underestimating the warming: A study released this week found that the oceans’ warming, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, may have been seriously underestimated over the past several decades. The heat can spell death to creatures that live in cold waters; according to a paper cited by the commission, climate change could drive up to 60 percent of species in the sea to extinction by 2050.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Overfishing makes no long-term economic sense, given the long-term harm to fish stocks and the subsidies paid by governments to fishing fleets. Chief among these subsidies, McKinsey says, is $27 billion poured globally into artificially lowering fuel costs for fleets. Thus, a sector with revenues of around $79 billion can get by despite operating costs of $73 billion and capital costs of $11 billion, because if you take $27 billion away from the operating costs, fishing fleets make a profit. "We estimate that there is an overall loss to the sector, but there are subsidies; and that creates the real surplus of the sector, so we are caught to a race to the bottom," as fisheries scoop up too many fish, Stuchtey says. If subsidies were eliminated and fish stocks could recuperate their numbers, fishing fleets would, presumably, win over the long term. Similarly, with plastic, too much of which ends up in the ocean: Why not capture and recycle more plastic? We know how to do this, but don’t do it enough. The ocean has become our trash pit, so that, as McKinsey points out, we lose money twice — first on the value of the discarded plastic, because we could be recycling it, and second in the harm to the ocean.

The most obvious-seeming solution would be setting aside large areas of the sea for protection. These preserves, like the Pacific monument created by Bush and Obama, now cover more than 2 percent of the world’s oceans (prior to Obama’s announcement, marine reserves made up 3.1 percent of U.S. waters; that figure will now be higher) — the global goal is 10 percent. But it’s not that simple. Fishing isn’t always banned in the preserves. And even if it is, a ban can be hard to enforce. Just as importantly, they are often created in areas of lowest "opportunity cost" — i.e., where there are the fewest fish or fishermen. (Many fishermen probably don’t trek out to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, for example.)

Just as important as high-quality preserves is more effective governance of the seas. The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, established a basic framework that allowed countries to navigate through and fly over the high seas and fish in them using conservation-minded practices. But there is no global body — no secretariat, no monitoring mechanism — to enforce the rules. The United States, unlike most other major fishing nations, still has not ratified the Law of the Sea, despite strong backing from Obama, Bush, the military, and even environmentalists. "The result is a bewildering proliferation of authorities, often with competing and overlapping mandates, but for the most part lacking any real regulatory or enforcement power," the Global Ocean Commission wrote in a report that got little attention when it was published this summer. The commission has underscored its concern by threatening a new and radical measure: If nations and their fishermen do not take action themselves within about five years, the commission calls for walling off much of the high seas to commercial fishing, so that fish can recover. However, this aspiration seems largely impotent, given the absence of effective high-seas governance. Instead, more practical measures would be to use identification numbers or other technologies to make fish more traceable to who caught them and where, thus penalizing unscrupulous fishermen.

Still, these big ideas, like the ones the commission is proposing, are worth aspiring to. The good news is big names are taking note. The European Union is aggressively pushing for an international oceans agenda, and Obama and Bush have clearly recognized that ocean conservation will buttress their long-term legacies. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to assume the rotating chair of the Arctic Council next year, offering an opportunity to manage the opening up of the thawing Arctic Ocean, a fragile and pristine terrain that may soon become a hub of shipping, oil extraction, and fishing — and the center of a new battle over ocean preservation. Preserving the ocean is a relatively uncontroversial legacy, as both Obama and Bush have found; with luck, world leaders will also champion the world’s most valuable, and least valued, asset.

Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy and climate issues. She is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush. Twitter: @kategalbraith

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola