by Marina Orhei

MONACO. Due to the health crisis related to the Coronavirus – Covid19 epidemic, many events have been regretfully canceled. The 11th edition of the Monaco Blue Initiative, a high-level discussion platform gathering numerous international leaders from the political and ocean spheres, has been postponed to March 2021. The coronavirus lockdown is giving the world’s oceans much-needed breathing space, let’s hope we don’t go back to bad habits when it ends.


Since 2009 the Monaco Blue Initiative supported by H.S.H. Albert II of Monaco and implemented by the Oceanographic Institute and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation is working towards a vision of a world supporting a healthy ocean for the benefit and enjoyment of all. The Monaco Blue Initiative’s goals are primarily to create alongside Prince Albert II a think tank, bringing new ideas and suggestions with regard to the considerable problems which the oceans face, to imagine pragmatic and effective solutions conveyed by this think tank and backed by the Principality and its partners, to make everyone aware of the issues at stake, of the importance of protecting the oceans as well as upcoming projects and related guidelines, to effectively convey these guidelines to the main decision-makers in order to speed up the decision process, and to ensure that the Monaco Blue Initiative lasts in time, to strengthen the ties and the communication between its participants.

A healthy ocean is of fundamental importance in securing our future on planet Earth. 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. The ocean is a massive influence on our weather and climate. Billions of people rely on the ocean for food – and research has shown that being in, on or near it offers countless benefits for our health and wellbeing. Although our ocean is a vital life support system, human activities have been having an increasingly devastating impact on its health. One of the biggest threats to our ocean is climate change, a global phenomenon that has been accelerated by an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Oceans are the source of life on earth. They shape the climate, feed the world, and cleanse the air we breathe. They are vital to our economic well being, ferrying roughly 90% of global commerce, housing submarine cables, and providing one-third of traditional hydrocarbon resources (as well as new forms of energy such as wave, wind, and tidal power). But the oceans are increasingly threatened by a dizzying array of dangers, from piracy to climate change. To be good stewards of the oceans, nations around the world need to embrace more effective multilateral governance in the economic, security, and environmental realms. The world’s seas have always been farmed from top to bottom. New technologies, however, are making old practices unsustainable. When commercial trawlers scrape the sea floor, they bulldoze entire ecosystems. Commercial ships keep to the surface but produce carbon-based emissions. And recent developments like offshore drilling and deep seabed mining are helping humans extract resources from unprecedented depths, albeit with questionable environmental impact. And as new transit routes open in the melting Arctic, this once-forgotten pole is emerging as a promising frontier for entrepreneurial businesses and governments. But oceans are more than just sources of profit—they also serve as settings for transnational crime. Piracy, drug smuggling, and illegal immigration all occur in waters around the world. Even the most sophisticated ports struggle to screen cargo, containers, and crews without creating regulatory friction or choking legitimate commerce.


Growing Indian and Chinese blue-water navies raise new questions about how an established security guarantor should accommodate rising—and increasingly assertive—naval powers. And the oceans themselves are in danger of environmental catastrophe. They have become the world’s garbage dump—if you travel to the heart of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find the North Pacific Gyre, where particles of plastic outweigh plankton six to one. Eighty percent of the world’s fish stocks are depleted or on the verge of extinction, and when carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, much of it is absorbed by the world’s oceans. The water, in response, warms and acidifies, destroying habitats like wetlands and coral reefs. Glacial melting in the polar regions raises global sea levels, which threatens not only marine ecosystems but also humans who live on or near a coast. Meanwhile, port-based megacities dump pollution in the ocean, exacerbating the degradation of the marine environment and the effects of climate change. Threats to the ocean are inherently transnational, touching the shores of every part of the world.

As threats to the oceans become more pressing, nations around the world need to rally to create and implement an updated form of oceans governance.


Among the handful of countries and regional organizations that have comprehensive ocean policies – including the European Union, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and most recently the United States – few synchronize their activities with other countries. The international community, however, is attempting to organize the cluttered oceans governance landscape. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Seas Program works to promote cooperation for marine and coastal management, albeit with varying degrees of success and formal codification.

Likewise, in 2007 the European Union instituted a regional Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) that addresses a range of environmental, social, and economic issues related to oceans, as well as promotes surveillance and information sharing. The IMP also works with neighboring partners to create an integrated oceans policy in places such as the Arctic, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, lastly there is no global evaluation framework to assess progress. No single institution is charged with monitoring and collecting national, regional, and global data on the full range of oceans-related issues, particularly on cross-cutting efforts. Periodic data collecting does take place in specific sectors, such as biodiversity conservation, fisheries issues, and marine pollution, but critical gaps remain. The Global Ocean Observing System is a promising portal for tracking marine and ocean developments, but it is significantly underfunded. Without concrete and reliable data, it is difficult to craft effective policies that address and mitigate emerging threats. Despite efforts, oceans continue to deteriorate and a global leadership vacuum persists. Much work remains to modernize existing institutions and conventions to respond effectively to emerging threats, as well as to coordinate national actions within and across regions. The June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, identified oceans (or the “blue economy”) as one of the seven priority areas for sustainable development.


Even tensions between rising powers could prove problematic. China, for instance, has been steadily building up its naval capabilities over the past decade as part of its “far sea defense” strategy. It unveiled its first aircraft carrier in 2010, and is investing heavily in submarines outfitted with ballistic missiles. At the same time, India has scaled up its military budget by 64 percent since 2001, and plans to spend nearly $45 billion over the next twenty years on its navy.

Pollution has degraded environments and ravaged biodiversity in every ocean. Much contamination stems from land-based pollutants, particularly along heavily developed coastal areas. Climate change is also exacerbating environmental damage. As the world warms, oceans absorb increased levels of carbon dioxide, which acidifies the water and destroys wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs—ecosystems that support millions of species of plants and animals. According to recent studies, ocean acidity could increase by more than 150 percent by 2050 if counteracting measures are not taken immediately. Moreover, melting ice raises sea levels, eroding beaches, flooding communities, and increasing the salinity of freshwater bodies. And the tiny island nation of the Maldives, the lowest country in the world, could be completely flooded if sea levels continue to rise at the same rate. Individual states are responsible for managing changes in their own marine climates, but multilateral efforts to mitigate the effect of climate change on the oceans have picked up pace. In particular, the UNEP Regional Seas Program encourages countries sharing common bodies of water to coordinate and implement sound environmental policies, and promotes a regional approach to address climate change. Arctic ice is melting at unprecedented rates. At this pace, experts estimate that the Arctic could be seasonally ice free as early as 2040, and possibly much earlier. As the ice recedes and exposes valuable new resources, multilateral coordination and observation will become even more important among states (and indigenous groups) jockeying for position in the region.


The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a solid foundation on which to build and coordinate national Arctic policies, especially articles 76 and 234, which govern the limits of the outer continental shelf(OCS) and regulate activities in ice-covered waters, respectively. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and related agreements serve as the bedrock of international ocean policy. However, UNCLOS is thirty years old. If it is to remain relevant and effective, it must be strengthened and updated to respond to emerging threats such as transnational crime and marine pollution, as well as employing market-based principles of catch shares to commercial fisheries, especially in the high seas. Lastly, UNCLOS Article 234, which applies to ice-covered areas, should be expanded to better manage the opening Arctic, which will be an area of increasing focus and international tension over the coming years. The international community should also counter the pressure of coastal states that unilaterally seek to push maritime borders seaward, as illustrated by China’s claim to all of the South China Sea. Additionally, states should focus on using UNCLOS mechanisms to resolve nagging maritime conflicts, such as overlapping exclusive economic zones from extended continental shelf claims, and sovereignty disputes, such as that of the Spratly and Hans Islands.

Many ocean-related governance issues have shortcomings not because rules for better management do not exist, but because weak states cannot enforce them. A failure in the oversight of sovereign waters inevitably leads to environmental degradation and, in cases like Somalia, can morph into problems with global implications, such as piracy. Accordingly, the international community should help less developed coastal states build the capacity to enforce (1) fisheries rules fleets; (2) International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships regulations to reduce ocean dumping and pollution; (3) other shipping regulations in states with open registries such as Liberia, Panama, Malta, and the Marshall Islands; (4) and existing mandates created to stop illicit trafficking. Developed countries should also help less developed areas monitor environmental variables such as acidification, coral reefs, and fisheries.


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