Protecting the Ocean We Need - Securing the Future We Want

Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) - High Seas Conference

Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York Callum Roberts gives a presentation at the Conference

In June, Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) convened a conference – A Global Agreement for the High Seas – to bring together scientific, legal, environmental and political expertise to discuss the BBNJ treaty process with key stakeholders from the United Kingdom (UK). With the UK set to leave the European Union, which negotiates as a bloc within the intergovernmental process, a strong, progressive stance from the UK government could bring a powerful new voice for high seas protection to the negotiations. 


The BLUE conference explored the governance landscape within which the current high seas negotiations sit, shared scientific and economic perspectives on high seas management, and looked at high seas issues through a human rights lens, from the perspective of the Commonwealth group of nations, as well as from a military angle. Participants were then tasked with defining how meaningful high seas protections could be shaped in the fields of politics, law, deep-sea mining and high seas management. 


An overall conclusion from the discussion was the vital need – in all spheres – to make tangible the connection between the high seas - often seen as vast, distant and untouchable - and people or communities. Connecting activities (overfishing, pollution, seabed mining) with their real impacts on human wellbeing and economic activity was seen as one key way to influence political opinion. Emphasising the ocean’s key role in mitigating climate change was noted as a critical issue that needs to be brought forward in future discussions; the ocean absorbs 90% of carbon from climate change and produces 50% of the Earth’s oxygen, but it can only continue do so in a healthy condition. 


Those that focused on legal content of the treaty underscored the importance of accountability following the agreement in 2020: The treaty should deliver a new, global body with a strong mandate for change and action – along the lines of a CoP – that can hold existing institutions to account and provide an umbrella for management action.


On deep-sea mining, the importance of public awareness of the issues was emphasised. It was agreed that deep-sea mining cannot progress without damaging ecosystems and, as such, should not progress until there is better science and wider engagement on the subject. Participants also questioned whether deep-sea mining would ever be economically viable. 


A high seas management discussion group described the ‘fragmented’ picture of management already in place. Action is needed to make high seas management more coherent, to close legal and governance gaps and provide a stronger mandate to tackle inadequate resource management from sectoral and regional bodies. 


The wide-ranging impacts of the high seas for humankind should also be better accounted for: current economic analyses only look at the costs/benefits of fishing activity, but global ecosystem services provide ‘extraordinary benefits’ in terms of health, wellbeing, and climate change. This huge value can, again, contribute to a stronger political mandate for meaningful protection.  BLUE will release the conference report shortly.