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The race to save our ‘Wild West’ seas

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Ed Conway, Economics Editor

Who owns the sea? It is an odd sort of question, and it has an odd sort of answer.

The short version is that we all do – you, me and everyone else on the planet.

Most of the oceans are safeguarded by United Nations treaties for what they call “the common heritage of mankind”.

This phrase, a rather poetic effort at constructive ambiguity, is much the same as the formulation we use to describe mankind’s relationship with the moon or with space.

The difference, of course, is that it is far easier to dip one’s toes in the sea than in the Sea of Tranquillity. And we’ve spent the past few millennia doing precisely that.

The ocean has always been our common source of food, our common means of transport and our common dustbin. It has been a source of immense riches. An economic gift that has provided unquantifiable amounts of value for humankind.

Blue Economy
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The world’s oceans provide ‘unquantifiable amounts of value for humankind’

Some economists have attempted to quantify that impossible sum. They have added up the income from fishing, from trade and transport, from tourism, from coral reefs.

They have attempted to put a price on the fact that the ocean is the source of half the oxygen we breathe, the sink for much of the carbon dioxide we exhale and the great moderator of our climate.

The figures they have come up with have tended to run into the trillions, at which point they became a bit meaningless.

And this is rather the problem: we simply do not know the value of the oceans to our economies. They are, quite literally, priceless.

That raises an issue. Economic theory suggests that unless we know how much something is worth – and have a clear idea of who owns it – we tend not to treat it with the respect it deserves.

That theory – the tragedy of the commons – was originally all about how farmers would overgraze their cows on common pasture land, since individually there was nothing to stop them doing so.

We simply do not know the value of the oceans to our economies. They are, quite literally, priceless.

Ed Conway

Those individual acts eventually added up to a shared ecological catastrophe. The principle helps explain why things are going wrong in the oceans.

Plastic pollution – something we at Sky News have spent the past year documenting – is only the beginning of it.

There is the issue of vast pollution from industrial agriculture around the world – fertiliser run-off which has polluted the waters around many of our coastlines.

The upshot is that many of our seas are deoxygenated. We are seeing dead zones, areas deprived of marine life, across the planet.

The rise in sea temperatures in recent years, itself a consequence of climate change, is causing coral bleaching episodes on a regular frequency.

There are fears that many of the world’s tropical corals will simply die off, which would spell disaster for local ecosystems, since corals are the gardens in which most of the marine life of the tropics live and breed.

Which brings us to fish themselves. For most of human history there was an overarching assumption that there was a nearly infinite number of fish in the sea.

Fish
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The oceans have, for the first time in history, seen a falling number of fish caught each year

But in recent years, something changed. Partly as a result of industrialised fishing on an unprecedented scale, the oceans have, for the first time in history, seen a falling number of fish caught each year.

The explanations for this are far from straightforward. Many of the fishermen I spoke to on my travels insisted there were still more than enough fish in the oceans and that there was no shortage.

Others – particularly small-scale artisan fishermen – blamed the giant industrial trawlers for taking so many of their fish.

There are political dimensions to this. For many small developing island nations, one lucrative option is to sell off fishing rights to fishing boats from Europe and further afield, in exchange for hefty fees.

That is precisely what has happened in the Seychelles, the epicentre of the Indian Ocean’s tuna industry. For many years, the fishermen assumed they could never run out of tuna, but recently worries have emerged about the sustainability of their stocks.

In particular, they fear that the yellow-fin tuna may soon become endangered.

This is only one of the concerns facing this small nation – largely reliant on tourism and fishing.

The main attractions for the tourism industry are the beautiful white sand beaches, the fresh seafood and the rich, colourful coral reefs.

But the country’s reefs are under threat. They have faced several bleaching episodes in recent years, which raises an uncomfortable question: what happens if the reefs all die?

After all, the white sand on the beaches is entirely a product of those coral reefs (the sand is created when fish nibble off bits of the coral).

The fish served up in local restaurants are reliant on the reefs for their habitat. And what happens to snorkelling and diving if there is no coral left anymore?

Coral reef
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Colourful coral reefs are a main attraction of the tourism industry


All of the above helps explain why, last month, the country took radical action.

It turned a whopping 15% of its waters into a marine protected area, limiting the amount of fishing and exploitation.

The idea is to increase the size even further in the coming years. It will reduce the vast areas in which the tuna fisherman can operate, and will, the government hopes, help safeguard the habitat for the fish.

And while coral bleaching is a global phenomenon, conservation groups are at work trying to rebuild the coral reefs, creating a bank of hardier breeds which might be able to survive further rises in sea temperature.

Just as intriguingly, the Seychelles has built up detailed plans of its entire territorial waters, trying to calculate what we have failed to understand for so long – just how much value is there in those waters, and how can it ensure it can benefit from it in a sustainable way. In short, it is trying to solve the tragedy of the commons.

Putting a value on the oceans is only one part of the solution. The other involves answering that first question: who owns the sea?

The longer version of the answer provides further detail on how our relationship with the ocean went wrong.

Under the UN law of the sea, each country can lay claim to 200 nautical miles of the sea from their coastline. This is what is technically known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Within this zone, a country can do pretty much what it wants. It can restrict fishing, it can impose some of the marine protected areas we now see across the Seychelles. It can drill for oil, plant wind turbines and so on.

A fisherman's boat is seen at Seychelles port
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The Seychelles is calculating the value of its waters

If the world’s seas were all owned by countries that bordered them, then it’s not impossible to imagine a solution to the tragedy of the commons.

The problem is once you get beyond that 200 nautical miles you are in the high seas – these are the equivalent of the Wild West: owned by no country, covered by no laws.

Technically speaking, you could go out to these seas and do whatever you want: fish all you want, dump all the rubbish you want, pick up whatever you want and call it your own.

Increasingly, while industrial fishing boats are cutting back on fishing in territorial waters and in countries’ EEZs, they are fishing more and more from the high seas, with no one to stop them. And there are other, deeper issues here.

For if you were to swim to the bottom of the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, you would come across minerals and metals with an almost incalculable value.

On land, we are fast running out of the metals which we’ll need in the coming century to power electric cars, build the next generation of mobile phones and provide us with a sustainable, green future.

But these metals exist in multitudes under the sea. And now that we have the autonomous submarine technology that will enable us to do that, what is to stop anyone going out and plundering it?

Sea mining
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Autonomous submarine technology can mine for metals

The answer is an institution you’ve probably never heard of, based in a quiet part of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica.

The International Seabed Authority is the organisation charged by the UN with managing any mineral extraction in the high seas.

In practice that means deciding which countries can explore and mine for those metals – from gold to copper to cobalt.

Isn’t that essentially like parcelling off the seabed to the highest bidder? Not quite, says the ISA’s head, Michael Lodge.

Because those countries who mine out there will have to give a share of their profits to the rest of the world. In the case of deep-sea mining, the “common heritage of mankind” means everyone gets a share.

The issue is that we remain quite ignorant of what lies in the seabed. Every time scientists make expeditions to the seafloor they discover new species and new rock formations.

There is a chance there are extremely valuable creatures and features we simply don’t know about. For instance, bio-prospectors are already using compounds created from some sea squirts found in the Caribbean which are now being used to fight cancer.

Which other diseases could be cured by deep sea creatures we have yet to encounter? And what is the risk that deep-sea mining destroys those species before we entirely understand them?

Then there are the risks to human knowledge. The ISA recently allotted a segment of the mid-Atlantic ridge to Poland to explore for mining sites.

Within that plot is an area called the Lost City, where scientists have discovered a chemical reaction occurring which might mirror what happened when life began on this planet four billion years ago.

While no one expects Poland to destroy the Lost City, the fact is there is no specific rule or regulation stopping them.

Indeed, the ISA is only now starting to draw up the rules which will govern deep-sea mining.

Michael Lodge
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Michael Lodge heads the ISA, which manages mineral extraction in the sea

As Mr Lodge told me, the institution might well be the solution to the tragedy of the commons – its very job is to ensure that when we start mining in the high seas, we go in with our eyes open, unlike almost every other gold rush in history.

But that will take a lot of tough work from the ISA, a shoestring operation which will soon face immense pressure from the likes of China and Russia – two of the biggest enthusiasts in the nascent field.

Still, it is a reminder that if we behave sensibly, there is nothing to stop us benefiting from the sea’s resources while maintaining its ecosystem.

As I learned when I travelled to Orkney to visit the world’s leading wave and tidal power test centre, the sea could provide enough electricity to power the entire world.

The minerals sitting around on the bottom of the sea could help us to build the world’s next generation of electric cars and solar panels. Managed properly, there could be more than enough fish to feed us forever.

But if we carry on the way we have in recent years, there is an alternative future – one where sea levels rise, causing untold costs; where fish stocks run out; where coral reefs die and the ocean’s capacity to keep absorbing our carbon dioxide diminishes.

More from Sky Ocean Rescue

We are seeing what Bank of England Governor Mark Carney describes as a “market failure”. We are running out of time to put it right.

In Too Deep airs on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday at 8pm and on Sky News on Friday at 9pm.

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Prince Harry and Meghan meet top UN official amid world leaders’ gathering in New York | World News

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Prince Harry and Meghan have met with a top UN official during the world body’s biggest annual gathering.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex visited the UN headquarters in New York to speak with deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed.

Ms Mohammed said they discussed “how to engage on issues we care about deeply”, such as vaccine equity, climate action, the economic empowerment of women, youth engagement and mental wellbeing.

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Harry and Meghan pay respects at 9/11 memorial

“It was a lovely meeting,” Meghan said afterwards.

The UN said Ms Mohammed welcomed the couple’s work to address the organisation’s 17 sustainable development goals, which were created in 2015 and include objectives like ending hunger and poverty, achieving gender equality and combating climate change.

The trio met ahead of their scheduled appearances at the Global Citizen concert in Central Park later on Saturday.

The star-studded, 24-hour event aims to encourage climate action and urge wealthier countries to share one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines with other nations.

Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran are among the musicians expected to headline the festival, which features performances in cities including New York, London and Sydney.

Tens of thousands of people are set to attend, with millions likely to tune in to the broadcast.

Prince Harry and Meghan are due to speak at the event in New York as part of their first major public trip since quitting as senior royals.

Earlier this week they visited the city’s memorial for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and the state’s governor, Kathy Hochul, joining them.

United Nations, New York, USA, September 23, 2021 - Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed briefs journalists on the UN Food Systems Summit.Today at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Photo by: Luiz Rampelotto/EuropaNewswire/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
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UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed said they discussed ‘how to engage on issues we care about deeply’. Pic: AP

The UN is currently hosting the annual general assembly of world leaders, who have been discussing efforts to fight climate change and COVID-19.

Meghan has been involved with the UN women’s agency for several years, acting as “advocate for political participation and leadership”.

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Were Prince Harry and Meghan cut off financially?

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were among those chosen as Time magazine’s 100 most influential people last week.

Last year, the couple stepped down from royal duties, moving to California and launching their Archewell Foundation.

They have previously supported other Global Citizen initiatives, acting as campaign chairs for a Vax Live event in May which encouraged donations to Covax, an initiative working to provide vaccines for low and middle-income countries.

In a speech he made on stage, Prince Harry called for coronavirus jabs to be “distributed to everyone everywhere”.

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German election: Voters want fresh leadership even if many seem unconvinced by the options | Politics News

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They’re already putting Angela Merkel out to pasture at the Tussauds waxworks in Berlin, decking her out in clothes to go hiking, which the chancellor says she wants to do more of when she’s retired.

Mrs Merkel has been chancellor for 16 years.

Madam Tussaud’s studio assistant Karen Fries says it will be strange when she is gone.

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Germany election: What’s at stake?

“It’s going to be weird, yes, because it’s now 16 years and we are not used to getting along without her, but we’ll see.”

The same sentiments are around the corner at the Brandenburg Gate.

Another race was under way ahead of the election: rollerbladers gathering to speed around the route of the marathon that is run this weekend.

“Both of us, we are 23,” two young bladers told us. “We just know Angela Merkel. So I think an era comes to an end.”

Another man told us none of the candidates can replace her: “No, they are too weak.”

Is this just another country’s election or one we should all be interested in?

Madam Tussaud's studio assistant Karen Fries says it will be strange when she is gone
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Madam Tussaud’s studio assistant Karen Fries says it will be strange when Angela Merkel is gone

Angela Merkel was called the leader of the free world, a moniker she herself thought was absurd. But it gives a sense of the void she may leave in these uncertain times.

Mrs Merkel has been credited with steering Germany through numerous crises but critics say she did not do enough to see them coming or warn Germans about others on their way.

Matthew Karnitschnig, Politico’s chief Europe correspondent, says: “The problem is that Merkel has shielded the population for a very long time from the realities of what’s going on in the world.”

angela merkel wax statue in madame tussauds
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A wax figure of Angela Merkel is going on display in Germany

Mrs Merkel was more of an administrator than a leader, he says, and has left one key question unanswered for her successors to address.

The way they do could have ramifications far beyond Germany.

“What’s at stake, really, is what role Germany is going to play in the world,” he says.

“Does Germany want to be a real player on the world stage, or does it want to act more like a giant Switzerland in the middle of Europe, trying to be all things to all people?”

Matthew Karnitschnig, Politico's chief Europe correspondent
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Matthew Karnitschnig, Politico’s chief Europe correspondent, says Mrs Merkel was more of an administrator than a leader

Germany after Mrs Merkel will be under pressure from America to take on Russia more and be a more useful partner within the EU.

For Europe’s largest country and richest economy, it has not punched at its weight in the minds of many in Washington and elsewhere.

Others agree that Mrs Merkel cossetted Germans and protected them from global realities too much.

Green MEP Sergei Lagodinski, who helped write his party’s foreign policy, told Sky News: “I do hope very much that after this very comfortable sleep that we had with a very comforting leader who actually drove us and directed us quite good through a couple of crises, we need now to wake up not only to survive crisis and get back to the business as usual, but try to reimagine both Germany and Europe in this new age.”

Green MEP Sergei Lagodinski,
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Green MEP Sergei Lagodinski says Germany needs to be reimagined

The world and Germany are very different now than 16 years ago when Merkel first came to power.

Climate change, populism and artificial intelligence are all challenges that need proactive leadership, arguably not a strength of Mrs Merkel’s.

“I think it’s tremendously important, not just for Germany but for Europe,” Mr Lagodinski says.

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German voters take to the polls

“We have a situation where we have a change in terms of who’s going to lead Germany but also we have a totally changed global situation.”

There is the sense of an era coming to an end on the eve of this important election.

In the dusky light of a warm September evening, the voters we spoke to seemed relaxed about the future but conflicted too.

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Germany’s election: The end of Merkel

They want change but also continuity.

There is a yearning for stability with such a familiar figure bowing out and in such unpredictable times. But 16 years is a long long time to have one leader, we have been told repeatedly.

Germany and the world have new challenges to take on and new demons to fight, and voters want fresh leadership even if many seem unconvinced by the line-up they have to choose from.

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Dean Berta Vinales: Fifteen-year-old World Superbike star dies after crash during race in Spain | World News

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Fifteen-year-old motorcyclist Dean Berta Vinales has died following a crash at a World Superbike Championship race in Jerez, Spain.

After 11 laps in the Supersport 300 support race, the Spanish athlete crashed at the second turn, along with three other riders.

He suffered severe head and spinal injuries and was treated by medical crews who arrived on the scene, World Superbike said.

They attended to him on the track, in an ambulance and at the circuit medical centre.

“Despite the best efforts of the circuit medical staff, the Medical Centre has announced that Berta Vinales has sadly succumbed to his injuries,” World Superbike said.

The race was red-flagged by the director and cancelled, along with the rest of Saturday’s action.

Vinales was MotoGP rider Maverick Vinales’s cousin and he rode for his uncle’s Vinales Racing Team.

In a statement on social media, Vinales Racing Team said it was “devastated”.

MotoGP said on Twitter: “We’re devastated by the tragic loss of @DeanBerta21 following a crash in #WorldSSP300 Race 1 today.

“Sending all our love and strength to Maverick Vinales and Dean’s entire family, his team and loved ones.”

Six-time MotoGP champion Marc Marquez wrote: “Rest in peace Dean. All my support to family and friends.”

World Superbike said Vinales was “enjoying a recent run of good form” in his rookie season in the FIM Supersport 300 World Championship, coming in fourth in Race 2 at the Magny-Cours circuit and sixth in Race 2 at the Barcelona-Catalunya track.

He had set the fastest lap in Race 1 and the organisation said he was “showing great potential”.

The tragedy is the latest in a series of crashes that have claimed the lives of young riders.

Fourteen-year-old Hugo Millan died after crashing at a race in Alcaniz, Spain in July, while Swiss Moto3 rider Jason Dupasquier, 19, died in May from injuries he sustained in a three-bike crash during a qualifying session at the Mugello circuit in Italy.



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