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Governing our oceans


Without good governance, a whole society can collapse.

AhuTongariki" by Makemake at German Wikipedia - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Lead author: Robin Mahon
Other contributors:
Lucia Fanning
Kristina M. Gjerde
Oran Young
Michael Reid
Selicia Douglas

Governance structures for fisheries, pollution, biodiversity and climate change in ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) are addressed by over 100 international agreements. This global governance architecture is fragmented, poorly integrated and has many significant gaps in coverage of issues, especially biodiversity. There is room for improvement at both regional and global levels.

There are opportunities now for significantly improving governance of the global ocean, and in turn ecosystems around the world

A closer look at the policy processes associated with the more than 100 agreements governing ABNJ reveals weaknesses at several policy cycle stages, particularly decision-making and implementation. Any decisions made within these agreements are often only suggestions, which countries may or may not choose to implement. There are seldom repercussions for non-compliance. Implementation is also weak. In most cases it is left up to the countries involved to ensure that agreed measures are put in effect and monitored. Many do not have the capacity to do so.

Integration opportunity

Viewed as a whole the entire set of governance agreements appear to show a networking structure, which could provide a useful framework for strengthening the interactions required to overcome fragmentation. For example there are several global agreements for key issues such as fisheries, pollution and biodiversity. Together with their associated regional agreements, these currently form separate silos referred to as "global-regional, issue-based networks". Integration across these at the global level should be a priority. This is a responsibility of UN Oceans (a mechanism to link the UN agencies involved in ocean governance) but UN Oceans has no staff or resources to do the job.

Complementing the "global-regional, issue-based networks" are 16 crosscutting "regional intersectoral networks", where regional agreements for several issues coincide in a geographical area. These provide the opportunity for integration among issues needed for ecosystem based management at the regional level. The agreements in these clusters are generally weakly connected, with only a few clusters having any overarching integration mechanism, and many lacking an agreement for biodiversity. These regional clusters should be the focus of strengthening activities that target the policy processes of individual agreements, establish new regional agreements to fill gaps, and the develop regional integration mechanisms.

Governance structures beyond national waters are fragmented and poorly integrated, and riddled with gaps

A holistic approach

The assessment conducted here has focused on ABNJ, but the global and regional networks of agreements described above also apply to areas within national jurisdiction (AWNJ), or have linkages to agreements that focus on them. It is probably most appropriate to deal with ocean governance as a whole rather than separating it into areas either beyond or within national jurisdiction, while recognising that there are substantial jurisdictional differences and that arrangements for areas beyond national jurisdiction are much further behind.

Poor governance appears to be a root cause of unsustainability in global ocean practices

The assessments made in this analysis have been based on the texts of the agreements and associated documents such as rules of procedure. This is somewhat of a limitation, reflecting “rules on paper” rather than “rules in practice”. Nonetheless, such an analysis does provide a significant basis for discussion of what is, and what should be, taking place in practice.

Several recent high-level meetings and reports have concluded that poor governance is a root cause of unsustainability of ecosystem services from the global ocean. Current thinking about governance suggests that addressing this root cause will require much more than the conventional historical focus on regulatory processes and enforcement.

The recognition that governance is much broader than this and encompasses the private sector, civil society and resource users of all kinds has led to increased attention to the institutional arrangements and structures within which governance processes play out. This preliminary look at the overall architecture for ocean governance has the potential to make a significant contribution to this discussion.