Kristina Gjerde Explains How We Make Laws for Un-Owned Oceans (Interview)

antarctica whales penguins photo

Photo Credit: Penguins/Killer Whales of the Ross Sea
Kristina Gjerde is an expert on regulating the high seas. Or rather, as much an expert as anyone can be on a topic that is constantly questioned and changing. Regulating the open ocean is part of ensuring a sustained future for fisheries, whales, sea turtles, sharks, corals and countless other important species, let alone the natural systems like currents and pH balance that are impacted by global warming. Last year, she gave a TED talk on the complex topic of marine conservation in unowned areas of the ocean, and she was generous enough to answer a few questions we had about what it means to save an ocean that everyone uses but no one claims responsibility for.
kristina coral photo

Photo credit: DASS Science Team, IFE, URI-IAO, and NOAA Paragorgia (bubblegum coral) with brisingid sea star (Novodinia antillensis)
You focus on high seas policy and laws for conservation in international waters. With problems from illegal whaling to overfishing to pollution that recognizes no borders, what are some of the biggest environmental issues that need the attention and collaboration of global leaders?

What really should grab the attention of global leaders are the cascading and cumulative impacts of human activities on ocean ecosystems. Unsustainable fishing, ocean acidification and pollution don't operate in isolation, but together undermine the ability of ocean life to survive, let alone thrive.

Two-thirds of high seas fish stocks are already overfished--some to the point of no return. Carbon dioxide emissions from factories on land and ships at sea are changing the very chemistry of the ocean, making it more corrosive to life. Huge rafts of plastic are floating in Indian, Atlantic and Pacific ocean gyres, filled with the flotsam of our throw-away lives.

There is thus an urgent need for global leaders to work together to build effective management institutions that maintain ocean health while enabling sane use. Sadly, out of 18 Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, only the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources, CCAMLR is really achieving this balance. It is guided by a broad mandate for conservation, science and precaution. We need to find ways to bring the 17 other RFMOs rapidly up to the standards of CCAMLR, if we wish to have fish -and functioning ecosystems -in the near future.

ice and whales photo

Photo credit: Penguins/Killer Whales of the Ross Sea
Marine protected areas in international areas seem like a practically impossible goal. What progress are we making in this area?

This is an exciting time for high seas marine protected areas. Just last September, States in the Northeast Atlantic established the first high seas MPA network of six sites. In the Southern Ocean, CCAMLR has committed to establishing a comprehensive system of MPAs by 2012, having designated its first high seas MPA in 2009. Moreover, the Mediterranean states are also considering a suite of potential high seas protected areas.

At the same time, new alliances are emerging to promote additional sites. For example, the Sargasso Sea Alliance is focusing on the "golden ocean rainforest" that spans two million square miles across the central Atlantic. With the leadership of the government of Bermuda, in cooperation with the United Kingdom and many others, we are seeking to safeguard the Sargasso Sea as a critical nursery habitat for myriad species such as sea turtles, sharks, eels and flying fish. To promote cooperation in creating high seas MPAs across the globe we are now building a broader High Seas Alliance of scientists, conservation organizations and others committed to high seas reforms.

We also know much more now about the vast open and deep ocean, thanks to the Census of Marine Life. Scientists have tracked sea turtles as they move thousands of miles across the Pacific, and discovered new hydrothermal vents deep below the Southern Ocean. Global leaders can use this information to identify key places to protect and to establish systems of protected areas that capture the dynamism and diversity of marine life. To kick-start this process, the Global Ocean Biodiversity is working with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to organize a series of regional workshops. But as described below, many challenges remain.

sea grass photo

Photo credit: Philippe Rouja, Golden Sargassum mats in the Sargasso Sea.
Can you discuss the issue of ownership when it comes to protecting something of international interest, like vitally important ecosystems that exist beyond the jurisdiction of any country? Is human possessiveness good or bad when trying to create and enforce international conservation zones?

Because the high seas are a global commons, by definition owned by no one, they are open to anyone with the money, technology and desire to get there. This has sadly led to the 'tragedy of the commons" evidenced by our epidemic of overfishing. But it doesn't have to be that way. We have an internationally agreed legal framework, and many legally binding rules, such as the duty to protect the marine environment, to conserve high seas living resources and to cooperate. States should be controlling their flagged vessels and enforcing rules to protect vitally important ecosystems. But to date few States have been willing to stand up to their fellow States unless it is directly in their national interest.

To change this mindset, we need to bring the high seas into national and international awareness. Marine protected areas, or "hope spots" as Sylvia Earle so aptly describes them, are a key way to focus attention on the beauty, fragility and value of high seas ecosystems. Hence we at IUCN are working with Sylvia through the Sargasso Sea Alliance and the High Seas Alliance to bring home the hope spots of the high seas. By sharing images and information about these special places, we hope to inspire a new generation of ocean stewards and global leaders to care about something not because we own it, but because it belongs to the collective legacy of us all.

marine garbage photo

Photo credit: Sabine Christiansen Garbage collected with research trawl on Seine Abyssal Plain, Atlantic, 4450 m.
Can you tell us a little about the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative and its importance to marine conservation?

The Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative, GOBI for short (, is an international partnership dedicated to advancing the scientific basis for conserving biological diversity in the deep sea and open ocean.

GOBI was launched by the German government and IUCN in 2009 to help governments identify critical ocean areas in need of special care because of their importance as feeding, breeding and nursery grounds, as migratory corridors, or for their uniqueness, naturalness, biodiversity, productivity or sensitivity. This work is based on internationally agreed criteria adopted by the CBD in 2008. GOBI's scientific and technical partners use and develop data, tools and methodologies from a wide variety of disciplines to locate specific places and to predict patterns of ocean use.

GOBI currently consists of 20 research institutes, government agencies, non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, including the Census of Marine Life, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and its Ocean Biogeographic Information Service (OBIS). Through these partners, GOBI reaches out to thousands of scientists around the world.

The sort of information that GOBI provides is vital to global leaders and decision-makers seeking to manage any human activity in the high seas. It provides the scientific underpinning for identifying and protecting vitally important ecosystems that support the larger ocean economy.

Your job is fascinating, and one of those amazing niche positions. How did you become the high-seas policy advisor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)?

As I suspect is not so uncommon, I found my dream job by a combination of luck, hard work, curiosity and passion. I started my professional life as a lawyer for shipping companies, concerned about collisions and cargo damage. I had always loved the sea, but the first time I went scuba diving changed my life. Seeing the colorful corals impelled me to want to learn more about their homes, their lives and their perils. So I came back determined to find a way to protect these fragile undersea creatures.

To build my knowledge base, I learned about conservation organizations, graduate school programs and fellowships, and was awarded a Marine Policy Fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. At Woods Hole I dived into the science of tropical coral reefs, marine ecology and oceanography, while learning about US and international conservation laws, policies and practices. So you could say I am largely self-taught, driven by the desire to learn everything I can about the sea.

From Woods Hole I was able to launch a conservation career, always seeking to use law, based on sound science, as a tool to minimize the human footprint on the ocean. Since 2002, high seas have been my priority concern, as they are the least understood and least protected part of the planet. My position at IUCN evolved from a part time job organizing a workshop on high seas MPAs into a full time position seeking to address the full gamut of high seas stressors. Some foresighted funders, including the JM Kaplan Fund, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, have made my work possible. And the people at IUCN have been wonderfully supportive.

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Kristina Gjerde Explains How We Make Laws for Un-Owned Oceans (Interview)
Photo Credit: Penguins/Killer Whales of the Ross Sea Kristina Gjerde is an expert on regulating the high seas. Or rather, as much an expert as anyone can be on a topic that is constantly questioned and changing. Regulating the open

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