Regulation of the eco-marine system as a guide to sustainable development growth post Covid-19

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Iragbeson Stephanie Oyakhire-Ifijeh

Niji Oni & Co, Lagos


Although 38 per cent of the world’s population live within a narrow fringe of coastal land, it occupies only 7.6 per cent of the Earth’s total land surface (UN Environment Programme 2006). These populations largely depend on coastal resources for their livelihoods. Humans began marine exploration to alleviate population, resource and environmental crises. Marine development and use have become an irreversible trend, and the marine economy an important part of the national and international economy.

According to the the World Economic Forum (WEF), oceans are the Earth’s most valuable asset and their ‘natural capital’ is huge, contributing US$70tn to global gross domestic product (GDP) annually. The value of ecosystem services oceans provide is US$38tn annually for example, 80 per cent of our oxygen comes from oceans, while the seas act as huge stores of heat and carbon, essential for regulating the climate. Seafood, reefs and tourism are major sources of jobs and wealth, while mangroves, reefs and deltas help protect coastlines. Fisheries are a major source of food, providing more than 1.5 billion people with almost 20 per cent of their average per-capita intake of animal protein. In 2008, an estimated 45 million people were directly engaged, full time or, more frequently, part time, in fisheries or aquaculture – that’s twice the population of Australia. One in six jobs in the United States is marine-related and more than a third of US gross national product originates in coastal areas.[1]

However, with the development and use of marine resources and space, the coastal and marine ecosystems have been continuously deteriorating because of human pressure, almost 80 per cent of which originates on land.[2] Marine environmental disasters such as coastal erosion and red tides occur frequently. This shows that the marine ecosystem and environment have been seriously affected. Maintaining the balance of marine ecology has become an important strategic base for nations to develop the marine economy and achieve sustainable development post Covid-19.[3]

Makeup of the marine ecosystem

Marine ecosystems can be simply defined as the interaction of plants, animals, and the marine environment. By ‘marine’, we mean of, or produced by, the sea or ocean. The term encompasses the salty waters of the Earth, and is also known simply as a salt water ecosystem. Broadly speaking, the marine ecosystem refers to the oceans and seas and other saltwater environments as a whole. Like all ecosystems, marine ecosystems are finely balanced and highly complex. There are many different parts that make up an ecosystem, and each part plays a role in maintaining balance within the system. Organisms depend on, and are highly influenced by, the physiochemical environmental conditions in their ecosystem.[4]

The state of the marine ecosystem

Environmental damage to marine ecosystems has been estimated at US$13bn per year. Related economic costs include those linked to clean-up operations, litter removal, the repair and replacement of damaged vessels and gear, reduced fishing catches, and a decline in coastal tourism and impact on related industries.[5] Poor management practices are leading to degradation of the marine ecosystem which is critical to food security and sustainability.

The UN Environment Programme’s Global Environment Outlook says three-quarters of marine fisheries are exploited up to, or beyond, their maximum capacity. The UN’s most recent State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Report states that 85 per cent of fish stocks are fully exploited or worse.

Oceans support nearly 50 per cent of all species on Earth. Many species are endangered, and some coral reefs are dying or damaged because of a combination of pollution, rising water temperatures and increasing ocean acidity as the planet heats up and the sea soaks up extra carbon dioxide from power stations, industry and cars. Pollution from the oil and gas sector is another threat. Masses of rubbush are littered across the ocean bed or trapped in huge gyres, or rotating ocean currents, in the Pacific and elsewhere.[6]

During the Covid-19 pandemic, overall marine fisheries changed dramatically. In the near term, the impact of Covid-19 on the health of the ocean has largely been positive due to the reduction in various sectoral pressures which lead to pollution, overfishing, habitat loss/conversion, invasive species introductions and the impacts of climate change on the ocean. While the ocean may enjoy some short-term benefits, the livelihoods and food security of tens or even hundreds of millions of people may be seriously affected.

There is already evidence that significant slowdowns have occurred in fisheries, shipping, coastal tourism, coastal development, and oil and gas extraction. In a recent informal poll conducted by the Economist during one of its World Ocean Initiative webinars, participants ranked the following ocean sectors as the most affected by Covid-19: tourism 70.7 per cent, fisheries 10.4 per cent, offshore oil and gas 7.2 per cent, shipping 6.2 per cent, offshore renewables 2.9 per cent, and aquaculture 2.6 per cent. A recent survey by the UNDP Global Environment Facility Global Sustainable Supply Chains for Marine Commodities project showed significant reductions in demand for shrimp, octopus, crab, snapper, grouper, squid and mahi-mahi. This was due to lower demand from export markets, the challenge of practicing sanitary measures on fishing boats, difficulties accessing supplies and labour shortages.[7]

Global industrial fishing activity was reduced by 6.5 per cent at the end of April 2020 compared to same period in 2019, or by ten per cent if calculated from the date the global pandemic was declared. Regionally, fishing activity reductions varied. As of early April 2020, cumulative fishing activity in China’s EEZ was down by nearly 40 per cent since the Chinese New Year, with approximately 1.2 million fewer fishing hours. Chinese fishing activity has since recovered. In Peru, having the world’s largest commercial fishery, fishing activity dropped by 80 per cent, while Indonesian shark trade reportedly declined by 70 per cent. In European waters, many large fishing nations (such as Spain and Italy) saw their fishing substantially reduced during the lockdown, with reductions up to 50 per cent or more until late May 2020, compared to previous years.[8] In the US, two-thirds of commercial fish go to restaurants, many of which were closed, so demand plummeted. In Ecuador, decreased demand for mahi mahi, mainly due to the complete collapse of tourism, led to a significant reduction in prices and made fishing unprofitable. In Florida, demand for lobster fell due to elimination of markets in China.

International laws on conservation of the marine ecosystem

There are several instruments that exist in the international space which are geared towards the conservation of the marine ecosystem.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982

UNCLOS provides rules for the regulation of all uses of oceans and seas. It also establishes a framework for the development of conservation and management measures concerning marine resources and scientific research within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of states as well as on the high seas. While the provision may seem sufficient at first glance, it is most evidently not implemented in an effective or adequate way. The respective obligations are not absolute but obligations of due diligence. This means that the degree of expected care depends on the capabilities of states, that is, on available financial means and other resources, technologies and know-how. Under the current system, states do not have an interest in challenging other states before a dispute settlement body, as responsibilities cannot easily be determined. Enforcement of the provisions is, therefore, a major challenge.[9]

Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the UNCLOS of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement – UNFSA)

UNFSA imposes obligations on parties to protect the marine environment and requires states to ensure the sustainable use of fish stocks. UNFSA require states to apply the precautionary approach and adopt appropriate measures in maintaining or restoring populations of species that are part of the same ecosystem.

Convention for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPT Convention) 2000

The objective of the WCPT Convention is to ensure the long-term and effective conservation and sustainable use of highly migratory fish stocks in the western and Central Pacific, in accordance with UNCLOS and UNFSA.

FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing 1995

The FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing is a non-legally binding code, but with important links to UNCLOS. The Code expects states to implement appropriate measures within the precautionary principle framework to minimise waste, discards, ghost-fishing, and negative affects of fishing on associated or dependent species.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 1993

Although the CBD does not specifically address fisheries, it applies to all terrestrial and marine biodiversity, and, as such affects fisheries. It outlines measures for conserving biodiversity, including in situ and ex situ conservation measures. General measures for conserving and ensuring ecologically sustainable development include developing national policies, strategies and programmes reflecting the principles espoused in the Convention.

Convention on Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific 1976

The objective of the Convention is to conserve, utilise and develop the natural resources of the South Pacific region through careful planning and management for the benefit of present and future generations.[10]

The ECOWAS Coastal and Marine Resources Management Centre

This is the regional implementation centre for the monitoring of coastal and marine resources management in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sub-region. It is responsible for coordinating activities that utilise earth observation data via satellite to help manage fisheries resources, and provide early warning information on ocean conditions for the benefit of artisanal fishers. The Centre is one of six Regional Centers of Excellence which will implement the Pan-African programme on Monitoring for Environment and Security in Africa (MESA) which is aimed at enhancing coastal monitoring to help improve fisheries management and reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices; by providing information to relevant agencies.[11]

The most notable strengths of the international instruments are the instruments themselves, as they attempt to establish a global framework for the conservation and management of marine environments and resources. There are, however, several weaknesses that apply to each one which need to be considered if the world is to achieve sustainability post Covid-19 through the marine ecosystem.

One of the major drawbacks of these international instruments is that many states are not party to them, thereby limiting the extent to which these instruments are being applied. The provisions outlined in instruments are often vague and ambiguous with respect to the protection of the marine environment, and these provisions need to be addressed to more clearly assert the environmental protection obligations of states. Even though many of the instruments include illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, surveillance and enforcement as key issues to be addressed, it will be difficult or even impossible to control these problems through comprehensive and effective monitoring of an area so vast. Furthermore, many countries, developing nations in particular, will be hard pressed to find sufficient resources to implement many of the measures outlined in the international instruments.[12]


The global framework of marine ecosustem conservation can be strengthened if these challenges are taken into account. An effective and efficient framework would provide guidance with regard to the standard of care through a set of international standards, and address equity concerns. It would provide for enforcement, coherence and support for those countries lacking the capacities to implement agreed standards on their own.[13]



[1] Factbox: Why oceans are key to the global economy, Reuters, 24 February 2012, see https://www.reuters.com/article/us-oceans-economy-idUSTRE81N09Z20120224, accessed 16 May 2021.

[2] ‘The State of the Marine Environment: trends and processes’, UNEP, 2006, see https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/12469/global_soe_trends.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, accessed 16 May 2021.

[3] Qunzhen Qu, Sang-Bing Tsai, Mengxue Tang, Congjiang Xu and Weiwei Dong, ‘Marine Ecological Environment Management Based on Ecological Compensation Mechanisms’ (2016) 8(12) Sustainability 1267, see https://doi.org/10.3390/su8121267, accessed 16 May 2021.

[4] ‘Marine Ecosystem’, Biology Dictionary, last updated 8 June 2017, see https://biologydictionary.net/marine-ecosystem, accessed 16 May 2021.

[5] ‘Protecting the oceans against plastic pollution’, WTI news, 31 May 2016, see https://www.wti.org/institute/news/350/protecting-the-oceans-against-plastic-pollution, accessed 16 May 2021.

[6] See n 1 above.

[7] ‘The ocean and COVID-19’, UNDP Blog, 8 June 2020, see https://www.undp.org/blogs/ocean-and-covid-19, accessed 16 May 2021.

[8] M Coll, M Ortega-Cerdà and Y Mascarell-Rocher, ‘Ecological and economic effects of COVID-19 in marine fisheries from the Northwestern Mediterranean Sea’ (2021) 255 Biological Conservation 108997, see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320721000495#!, accessed 16 May 2021.

[9] See n 5 above.

[10] Transform Aqorau, ‘Obligations to protect marine ecosystems under international conventions and other legal instruments’, see http://www.fao.org/fishery/docs/DOCUMENT/reykjavik/pdf/02Aqorau.pdf, accessed 16 May 2021.

[11] Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) see https://www.ecowas.int/private-sector-organizations/ecomarine, accessed 16 May 2021.

[12] See n 10 above.

[13] See n 5 above.