Illegal fishing boats are burnt near the Pacific island nation of Palau, in October 2015 near one of the world's largest marine sanctuaries. Illegal fishing is seen as one of the most serious threats to the world's oceans and marine life. Photo: AFP / The Pew Charitable Trusts / Jeff Barabe
Illegal fishing boats are burnt near the Pacific island nation of Palau, in October 2015 near one of the world's largest marine sanctuaries. Illegal fishing is seen as one of the most serious threats to the world's oceans and marine life. Photo: AFP / The Pew Charitable Trusts / Jeff Barabe

A global treaty is urgently needed to save the world’s oceans from climate change, pollution and over-exploitation through illegal fishing, according to former US secretary of state John Kerry.

Speaking at the fifth Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Kerry said the world had only a few years to try and prevent massive damage to the seas, and predicted that cooperation between governments to address the impact of climate change would require the same kinds of efforts it took to prevent nuclear clashes during the Cold War.

“Illegal fishing globally still decimates fisheries at an unsustainable pace. Illegal fishing continues on an unmitigated, unsustainable pace and almost one-third of the world’s fisheries are still overexploited,” Kerry said.

He added that the remainder “are either at peak or nearly at peak with more and more people in the middle class, more and more people with money, more and more people demanding fresh fish on their table in their restaurants in their country.”

Kerry said a billion people worldwide depended on fish as their primary source of protein. If the world failed to do more to protect the oceans, there would be “an unrecognizable fishing industry which will pit country against country and promote even more money-driven decision-making than we face today,” he said. “Protecting the ocean doesn’t hurt jobs – it is jobs.”

The issue that brought Kerry into public life was “the nuclear freeze and arms control, the issues of peace.” “But now, folks, we need to face up to the fact that we’ve got to treat the issue of the oceans, and the protection of the oceans, and the protection of the planet, with the same urgency that we treated arms control and nuclear weapons.

‘There may soon be more plastic than fish’

“We need a non-proliferation treaty for pollution in the oceans, we need a global agreement where everybody is agreeing on how we’re going to enforce in the high seas, how we contribute,” Kerry said.

He said rising temperatures had changed the basic chemistry of the oceans faster than in the last 50 million years, threatening marine life. Damage had reached such extreme levels that there could soon be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

“You can’t protect the ocean without solving climate change. And you can’t solve climate change without protecting the ocean,” Kerry said.

Citing last month’s report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned of a mass die-off of coral reefs as early as 2040, Kerry said he remained optimistic that countries would act to solve the problems.

“Twelve years is the target for the governments to become responsible. For leaders to lead,” he said, calling for better collaboration to achieve goals in marine conservation and protection.

“It’s a shared responsibility that affects the $500 billion global economy and the livelihoods of 12 per cent of the world’s population,” he said. “It’s about the next generation being able to count on the oceans the same way our generation took it for granted until sometimes pushing it to the brink of breaking.”

Chinese fishing trawlers at Pohnpei, Micronesia in the Pacific. Photo: AFP

Kerry said there were still more than 400 unresolved maritime boundary disputes that had unfortunately compounded the problem of ungoverned spaces.

“This is not the time to rest on laurels, not when all over the globe there’s too much money still chasing too few fish, not when [on] the high seas there’s still too little enforcement,” he said.

The impacts of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and climate change on the world’s oceans were the key focuses of the two-day conference.

According to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 26 million tons of fish, worth up to US$23 billion, is captured illegally each year. The world’s maritime resources are valued at around US$24 trillion.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo called for a “mental revolution,” a concept recycled from his 2014 election campaign, to address the  challenges facing the seas and manage them in a sustainable manner.

“The ocean’s health is very concerning,” he said. “We are aware of plastic waste, water pollution, destruction of coral reefs, warming of sea temperature, the rise of sea levels, and so forth.”

He also warned that maritime piracy, human trafficking, drug smuggling and slavery were increasing. “The OOC [Our Ocean Conference] must be the driving engine behind a global mental revolution to nurture our oceans,” Widodo said.

$10 billion in global funding pledged

Widodo echoed Kerry’s call for international laws to be utilized to  resolve territorial disputes between countries.

“Overlapping maritime claims that, if not resolved through negotiations and based on international law, may pose a threat to stability,” he said. “International law must be the guidance in the settlement of maritime claims.”

More than 90% of world trade volumes are carried across oceans, and 40% in value terms. About 61% of crude oil is shipped the same way.

“No single country can resolve the challenges that we face alone,” Widodo said. “No single country can optimize the benefits of the oceans for the benefit of the entire world alone. Not even the government can solve everything.”

There was some positive news at the event. Participants pledged the highest amount of funding yet for new initiatives and commitments on the protection of a combined expanse of ocean that is eight times the size of Alaska.

In all, there were 287 pledges of bilateral and multilateral agreements between governments, the private sector, civil society organizations and philanthropic foundations, worth more than US$10 billion. They will protect some 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles) of oceans, according to Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs.

OOC has raked in commitments totaling US$28 billion and covering 26.4 million square kilometers of ocean at the five events.

“These numbers are beyond our expectations,” Luhut said in his closing remarks. “We are thankful for your collective contributions and making our ocean healthier and [more] sustainable.”

– with reporting by Basten Gokkon. This report was published originally by Mongabay. You can see the initial report here.