Life on the Ocean Waves - what’s it like for those who rely on the ocean for their livelihood? By Ross Primmer

Today is World Ocean Day and no doubt you will be inundated with information on how the ocean is our biggest carbon sink, how microplastics are affecting marine life and how overfishing is destroying, arguably, one of the most potentially sustainable sources of food on our planet. We encourage you to educate yourselves on these important issues that need to be urgently addressed worldwide.

The theme for this year’s World Ocean Day is focused on Ocean Life and Livelihoods. In the spirit of this topic, I have focused this article on how world trade impacts the lives and livelihoods of the people who work on the ocean. I hope it isn’t too dry (pun intended)…

I find it interesting that we often think about “the ocean” in a very different way to how we think about “the land”.

As landlubbers, humans have gone to extreme lengths to plant flags and draw lines on maps to stake claims to land. Including the moon. Once we’ve decided who owns what, we’re also experts at drawing up the rules and regulations to manage it.

With some notable exceptions, our concept of ‘ownership’ of the oceans are somewhat different – just ask an Icelandic cod fisherman, or Somali pirate.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that beyond 200 miles exist the “high seas”. These high seas fall under the jurisdiction of no single country. They are owned by everyone and no-one. The high seas cover 50% of the planet’s surface area, but are visited by a handful of barnacled sailors, piloting the vast ships vital for international trade, and putting the tuna in your lunchtime baguette.

A snap from the Sea of Tranquillity, not a drop of water or chip shop in sight…

Forgive me for skating over some of the legal jargon, but from a legal perspective, the high sea has a few high-level dos and don’ts with the rest down to the jurisdiction of the flag flown on the ship you are on.

Today the top 3 flags flown by ships are Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands. Often these flags have no material connection to the ships they are associated with; however, according to the International Transport Workers Federation these ‘flags of convenience’ can mean that workers on-board have:

  • Very low wages.
  • Live in poor on-board conditions.
  • Have inadequate food and clean drinking water.
  • Endure long periods of work without proper rest, leading to stress and fatigue.

This allows ship owners to take full advantage. They have:

  • Minimal regulation.
  • Cheap registration fees.
  • Low or no taxes.
  • Freedom to employ cheap labour from the global labour market.

We are all familiar with the eco-friendly brands/labels who go to great efforts to work with food producers and farmers to ensure fair wages and decent environmental standards. However, there is almost a complete lack of information about the labour conditions for the people who get these products across the ocean. A notable exception to this is the tuna fishing industry, where incidences of labour rights abuse and modern slavery is rife.

Arguably, this extends to almost any imported product you own, which is likely to have travelled thousands of miles of ocean in a shipping container.

The question is, should we not only care about where the products we consume come from, but also how they get to us?

Action Sustainability are experts on assessing environmental impacts, developing and then implementing strategies. For more information on how we can support you, please contact Ross on or 07469 140429.

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Ross Primmer

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