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Oceans of fantasy

THE OCEAN... OUR FUTURE· Report of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans·Mario Soares· Cambridge University Press, 1998, 248 pp

Published: Wednesday 31 March 1999

On the briny: a need for an ag Oceans. The first thoughts that strike the mind are of vastness, depth, large expanses of blue-green water, aquatic life, hidden treasures and waves lapping the shores.

Think some more and the realisation may dawn that we do not really appreciate all the services that they provide. Rich in marine flora and fauna, oceans stabilise the climate; link people and trade; provide people with food, water, energy and also fill in as a source of livelihood for millions. But the tranquillity of the oceans now stands disturbed. The human race has managed to threaten a total volume of 1,348 million cubic kilometres of ocean water. Various activities, such as dumping of toxic wastes, have polluted the oceans.

Recognising the importance of oceans for planetary survival, the Independent World Commission on the Oceans was set up by the United Nations in 1995 to review the existing status of oceans and to identify future problems. The book, a report of the commission, highlights six main issues -- the promotion of peace and security in the oceans, the quest for equity, the state of ocean science and technology, valuing the oceans, creating public awareness, and participation and working towards effective ocean governance. The book is written by Mario Soares, chairperson of the commission and former president of the Republic of Portugal.

The seas really belong to no one nation and should ideally be viewed as agents of peace, says the author. The translation of this noble intent into action is, however, a challenge by itself given the fact that the perception of "peaceful purposes" changes according to the whims of the user.

Addressing the question of equity of the oceans, the report of the commission has three provisions: that the needs of those at a disadvantage, either by economic condition or social circumstance, be looked at sensitively; that oceanic institutions promote socioeconomic development in developing countries; and that future generations be kept in mind. Oceans beyond national jurisdiction are global commons and need to be shared equitably Then there is the issue of sharing of deep seabed resources, especially genetic resources. Deep seabed genetic resources are not regulated by any convention. But given the rapid expansion in deep sea and seabed research and the extent of bioprospecting, there is an urgent need to focus on their legal, environmental and economic implications.

The commission calls for research in ocean science and technology. If ocean management systems are to be sustainable and equitable, they must be backed by good science and technology. The question of how a natural resource, which covers 71 per cent of the globe, be valued is also addressed. While direct estimates in terms of goods and services provided may be easy to estimate, the ecological services provided are a different ball game altogether and could run into astronomical proportions. For example, in 1994, the world's ecological services had been estimated at $ 33 trillion.

The potential cost to humanity when marine resources fail are serious enough to warrant international concern. Though the "precautionary principle" has been applied to oceans, it suffers from serious drawbacks like the fish harvesting quotas, which are supposedly set to keep fish harvesting within sustainable limits. But concrete data on a particular fish, for instance its population, is difficult to compile. Hence, restrictions on fish harvesting become questionable. Further, equity is rarely preserved as traditional fishermen and powerful fishing trawlers often exist side by side.

The report stresses that the masters of the oceans have to be the people. This participation is, however, nil in every stage -- decision-making, implementation and addressing complaints. If the oceans are to be governed equitably and sensibly, informed public participation is essential.

Ocean governance is itself in need of a sea change. International institutional mechanisms are weak. Besides, increasing legal instruments that come into play at the international level are often outside the capacity of a national government to assess its implications.

The agenda for ocean governance is clearly far from complete in terms of forming legislations to meet emerging challenges and in implementing and enforcing existing ones. It is about time that responsibilities are fixed for activities affecting the marine environment.

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