The health of the oceans is shipping’s problem too
After two decades, the UN has concluded the High Seas Treaty, which will not come into force for some years yet. Spoiler alert: expect more regulations
An industry that routinely allowed garbage to be dumped overboard until just 10 years ago needs to get with the programme
THE world has been debating the health of the oceans for the past two decades. By contrast, shipping companies seem to have been paying little attention.
Last weekend saw representatives of 193 states come together at the United Nations to finally sign off a legally binding agreement designed to ensure biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
That such a framework is needed to tackle issues as unsustainable fishing, plastic pollution and climate change impacts such as increased acidification has long been common ground.
But diplomacy rarely proceeds with alacrity, and it has taken 20 years of talks and five rounds of formal negotiations over the past five years to conclude the High Seas Treaty.
Even now, its stipulations will not enter into force until 60 countries pass the necessary domestic legislation. Past precedent suggests that will take years.
The International Maritime Organization and trade associations such as the International Chamber of Shipping have provided all of us with a vital voice in these tortuous talks, and deserve thanks for their role.
But at the level of individual shipping companies, it would be stretching a point to say the treaty has occupied too much bandwidth. Given the reliance of ships on the oceans as the medium in which they travel, that is remarkable. To put it bluntly, shipping hasn’t treated them well, as recent history attests.
We all teach our kids not to drop litter. But until the entry into force of amendments to Marpol Annex V in 2013 — and here we are talking just ten years ago — it was the custom and practices of centuries for vessels simply to dump their garbage overboard when nobody was looking. Let’s not pretend that this doesn’t still sometimes happen.
Until the advent of the Ballast Water Management convention, which entered into force as recently as 2017, molluscs and micro-organisms alike were freely able to hitch lifts on merchant vessels, reimplanting themselves in places which evolution would have precluded, often with deleterious outcomes.
There are already local restrictions on routing based on the needs of marine wildlife. But the effects of underwater noise on aquatic fauna, especially in the Arctic, is a topic of debate, and demands for change grow ever more clamorous.
On top of everything, there is now a real prospect of a twenty-first century rerun of the goldrushes of the mid-Victorian era, with the widespread roll-out of deepsea mining expected in the coming period. We are the industry best placed to develop means of undertaking this task, and many shipowners will no doubt make a lot of money in the process.
Unregulated seas would effectively constitute a new Wild West, an appropriate enough location for a new goldrush. Two-thirds of the world’s oceans are considered international waters, beyond the writ of any shore-based government.
One major upshot of the High Seas Treaty will be limitations on the scope of future human activity, designating large parts of then as Marine Protected Areas, in line with the “30 by 30” call to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030.
This would not ban ships from sailing through them, or trawlers from catching fish, or outlaw deepsea mining. But such pursuits will have to be consistent with conservation objectives.
IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim has pledged full IMO co-operation in meeting the deal’s goals. The enforcement efforts will draw heavily on the IMO’s experience of developing universal regulations applicable to those parts of the surface of the earth that are virtually impossible to patrol.
Shipping is already the subject of multiple Big Asks as part of the decarbonisation efforts. Whatever regulations emerge down the line because of the High Seas Treaty need to be reasonable, especially as compliance cannot be rigorously policed and will thus effectively be voluntary.
But the attitudes that prevailed in the past are simply no longer socially acceptable. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to realise that the oceans provide vital functions to the ecosystem and are not a convenient receptacle for infinite amounts of whatever people chose to throw in it.
The health of the oceans should concern everybody. It’s shipping’s problem too.