Increased carbon dioxide emissions have had other effects, such as increasing the acidity of the oceans.

Durban - The world’s oceans have helped nourish humanity for hundreds of thousands of years – yet in the space of just a few generations the abundance of life in the sea has crashed dramatically.

Largely thanks to industrial-scale fishing fleets fitted out with massive freezers, acoustic fish-finders, satellite and GPS equipment, there is no longer “plenty of fish in the sea”.

In fact, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that 87 percent of global fisheries are now fully exploited or over-exploited. Some seemingly inexhaustible fish stocks have collapsed, to the extent that fishing fleets are forced to sail into deeper and more distant waters for whatever remains.

Yet the fishing industry plunder is just one dimension of the downward health spiral of a complex water ecosystem that covers more than two thirds of Earth’s surface.

The increasing torrent of chemicals, sewage and the side-effects of human-induced climate change has put further pressure on the seas – to such an extent that some marine scientists are calling for much more drastic reforms to protect the oceans from a growing range of threats.

Reforms include calls for a new UN Department for Oceans reporting directly to the UN secretary-general, along with a new Interpol-style navy to police the high seas.

Late last year an international panel of scientists published a series of special reports in the Marine Pollution Bulletin calling for urgent remedies to halt the increasing rate of ocean degradation.

One of these reports zoomed in on the lack of effective legal power to safeguard the high seas from unsustainable and illegal fishing.

Kristina Gjerde, a lawyer and high seas policy adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, argued that the time had come for “fundamental and ambitious” measures to tackle the root causes of the mismanagement of the world’s oceans.

“The current system of high-seas governance that tolerates the mismanagement and misappropriation of high-seas living resources is placing our ocean in peril.”

Gjerde spoke of a “downward spiral of ocean health”.

While the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) had laid down the basic framework for conservation and management of the high seas, it contained no specific obligations or effective means to ensure the protection of marine life and ecological processes.

There are now 18 bodies known as regional fisheries management forums that were set up to work towards the conservation and management of fish stocks in the high seas (areas beyond the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones of coastal nations).

However, the status of more than two thirds of fish stocks that fall under these forums were not known, depleted or overfished.

Gjerde argues that these regional forums are ultimately answerable in law to their own member states only, and were designed initially to divide up fish stocks among themselves.

But if any country chose not to join the forums they could escape their rules.

Decisions taken in these forums were not always transparent and were often structured to allow one or more states to block or “opt out” of compliance rules.

One of the major problems was that nearly all these forums were made up of countries with a direct economic interest in fishing, and in some cases national delegates represented commercial fishing interests.

“This also means that national delegations either have inconsistent positions or even a conflict of interest, working to maximise revenue for their fishing industry, while at the same time obligated to ensure that fishing is sustainable.”

Because decision-making was mostly based on consensus, even one member could block conservation measures.

“This is further complicated when key decisions are made in closed sessions.”

In many cases, there was no legally enforceable way to penalise member countries that depleted high seas fish stocks.

Gjerde says regional forums now operate in an increasingly globalised world.

“The globalised nature of modern, high-seas fishing fleets, trading patterns and illegal activities mean that while fish stocks may be local or regional, the states, fishers, true owners of the vessels and the fisheries are often globally interlinked.

“The flag vessels of distant-water fishing nations that are free to roam different oceans may have vastly different interests than adjacent coastal nations.”

Several fishing nations also took advantage of flags of convenience to avoid regulation or to maximise fishing opportunities. She says the system of allowing flag states to act as the main enforcers was based on the legal fiction that a ship was a floating piece of national territory over which a flag state could exercise legal control.

“This tradition allows the few irresponsible flag states to evade their commitments and allows unscrupulous fishers to thrive.”

For example, it was still easy to alter logbooks, to disable vessel monitoring systems or to trans-ship fish cargoes at sea to other vessels or to land fish in harbours without rigorous control systems.

“While at sea, vessels can easily change names, ownership and flag registry to evade enforcement.”

To resolve some of these problems, several authors had proposed creating a new “Interpol for the Ocean” to track down illegal fishing vessels or for nations to co-operate more effectively to avoid having to chase vessels around the high seas.

Gjerde said it was possible to adopt a “soft approach” by attempting to reform existing structures and agreements. But this could take years of negotiation and fail to resolve conflicts of interest.

Instead, she called for a much more ambitious agenda for reform that would include:

l A new UN Department of Oceans and Law of the Sea that would report to the secretary-general via a dedicated under-secretary-general for oceans.

l There should be a global high seas enforcement agency to monitor and enforce rules for a full range of ocean security threats.

l Flag states should also be required to control their vessels adequately, via new measures that could include closure of ports, denial of services or denial of flag-state privileges.

l The new internationally agreed enforcement agency could have the power to conduct investigations, initiate court proceedings and apply sanctions to offenders.

Gjerde acknowledged that this process could be costly and time-consuming to negotiate and could be opposed by several states.

“However, the costs of inaction could be far higher to the health and well-being of humanity and our ocean planet in the long term.” - The Mercury