Tuesday saw the launch of the Global Ocean Commission, which I had the privilege to attend at the Commonwealth Club on London’s Embankment.
Commission co-chair, and former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, described his astonishment at discovering that there are absolutely no laws that govern the high seas that constitute most of the ocean (ie outside the 200 nautical miles of coastal waters that are the domain of every nation with a seaboard), beyond a vague UN Convention that covers the sea-bed but not the water itself.
That explains the rampant plunder that has characterised our relationship with the sea since the mid-twentieth century. As Felicity Lawrence put it in Eat Your Heart Out, her superb analysis of the global food industry: ‘Unless we radically change the way we manage the seas there will be no fish left for our grandchildren to eat. Wild seafood will be gone in fifty years if exploitation of the oceans continues at its present rate.’ By 2003 over 30% of fisheries were recorded as being in state of collapse.
Over the next year the Global Ocean Commission aims to analyse the key threats to international waters and publish recommendations before the UN General Assembly begins discussions on protecting high seas biodiversity. Chaired by former Costa Rican President José María Figueres, South African cabinet minister Trevor Manuel and former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband MP, the Commission brings together senior political figures including former Heads of State, Foreign Ministers and Finance Ministers from around the world, alongside business leaders and development specialists.
Their’s is a vitally important task. As José María Figueres explained, ‘The global ocean is essential to the health and well-being of each and every one of us. It provides about half of the oxygen we breath and absorbs about a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions; but we are failing to manage it in ways that reflect its true value. The Global Oceans Commission will help highlight its worth in our lives and indicate ways in which we can ensure its resources are used sustainably.’
To put the Global Ocean Commission’s work into perspective, as I was travelling home from the launch I read George Monbiot’s report on how the British bookmakers, Ladbrokes, has started taking bets on the survival of various fish species. The obscene practice may mark a new low in making profit at the expense of nature and follows the news that mackerel is being taken off some lists of sustainable fish.
It also brings into sharper relief the difficulty for fish-eaters in finding a sustainable meal. The British Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommends that people eat at least two portions of fish per week. It turns out that the essential fatty acids fish contains really are brain food, just like your Mum used to tell you. Fish is also an important source of protein for those of us trying to cut out meat eating and its rather large contribution to our carbon footprint. But given the general lack of information in shops and restaurants, how do you know which fish is threatened and which it is safe to eat before you buy it?
Thanks to the wonderful people at the Duke of Cambridge, London’s finest organic gastro-pub, I have any answer in the form of the Good Fish Guide phone-app. It’s free to download and means you can always carry around a traffic light guide to warn you off fish which have been trawled to the brink of extinction before they end up on your plate. The accompanying crib-notes also turn out to be a pretty good tool for engaging restaurants about their fish-sourcing policy. From my entirely unscientific poll over two month’s meals in London, New York, Manchester and Amsterdam, I would say that only one in ten waiters have been briefed to know the answer, but about a third can give a believably positive response once they have checked with the chef!