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Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Oceans Likened to World's Biggest Failed State

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Overfishing and pollution have pushed life in the high seas to the brink of collapse, according to a new report from the Global Ocean Commission. “The oceans are a failed state,” David Miliband, co-chair of the commission, told Reuters. The commission has implored governments to set a five-year deadline to deal with threats to the health of the high seas, which are marine waters outside national coastal zones; these seas cover almost half the globe.

Fishermen catch around ten million tons of fish from the high seas every year, with a value of $16 billion dollars. It’s a vast ocean of resources only recently made accessible by advances in fishing technology. The report warns that a combination of technology and big fuel subsidies have enabled industrial fishing fleets to heavily exploit 87% of the fish species there. Eighteen countries hand out billions of dollars in subsidies; the United States bestows fleets with $137 million for a catch worth $368 million.

Pollution, largely from plastics, also endangers ocean health. The abundance of plastics in the marine environment has risen tenfold every decade in some locations, and poses a hazard to sea life when they eat it or get entangled in it. Habitat destruction, climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss also pose a danger to ocean ecosystems.

The commission has said that if governments can’t clamp down on these threats soon then it may be necessary to ban industrial fishing in parts of the ocean. Many countries have already established marine reserves and imposed off-limits zones to industrial fishing, although these areas are not always well protected.

The commission’s urgent call to action comes a week after President Obama announced his plans to create the world’s largest marine protected area in the south-central Pacific Ocean.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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