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Protecting the Ocean We Need - Securing the Future We Want

United Nations Seeks to Protect High-Seas Biodiversity

By: Richard Blaustein

The high seas are critical to life on Earth. They constitute over 50 percent of the planet's area and over 90 percent of the habitable volume, with depths of 200 meters or more. Researchers continue to discover amazing life forms in the deep sea. But this rich biota faces a host of threats, from climate-change-related ocean acidification to pollution, deep-water trawling, and overfishing. Recently, scientists added to the list declining oxygen levels.<--break->

A February 2016 study published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles revealed an increasing number of oxygen-minimum zones, areas with significantly diminished marine life. Another 2016 paper that had been widely anticipated, published in Conservation Letters, called for expanding protected areas to a minimum of 30 percent of total ocean area.

Beyond the life it supports, the global ocean system plays a key role in mitigating climate change. The seas have an immense natural capacity to absorb heat and carbon. Some researchers also look to the oceans for potential geoengineering schemes, such as adding iron as a way to sequester carbon.

The high seas encompass the international area beyond the 200-mile-from-shore exclusive economic zones over which coastal nations have legal jurisdiction. Deciding how to conserve and sustainably manage high-seas biodiversity has long been a challenge. Researchers are hopeful that ongoing discussions aimed at adding a supplemental “biodiversity” treaty to the 1982 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea may provide an opening for protecting species and habitats in this critical area. A 2015 UN General Assembly resolution, 69/292, established a process for shaping an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) for protecting biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The General Assembly resolution set up a preparatory committee (PrepCom), which will meet for 2 years to develop substantive recommendations for the General Assembly on such an instrument.

The fact that the UN is getting serious about a legal instrument reflects a growing awareness that the deep oceans’ biodiversity is being degraded, with many gaps in protection and with international bodies and stakeholders not working together. The first World Ocean Assessment, which the UN published in 2015, found that many global players focus on narrow sectoral interests rather than on cooperation. “Without a sound framework in which to work, [stakeholders] may well fail to take into account the ways in which their decisions and actions interact with those of others,” the assessment authors found.

The first PrepCom meeting, held in April, identified the central issues: how to manage environmental impact assessments, marine genetic resources, and high-seas marine protected areas in an international context, including the role of existing oceans authorities, such as regional fisheries-management organizations. The second PrepCom meeting takes place in September, with two more scheduled for 2017. Later next year, the PrepCom will make its recommendations to the UN General Assembly.

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