SCOTT BASE, Antarctica — A group of hikers in red parkas approached a half-dozen seals resting on floating sea ice. The leader of the entourage — Secretary of State John Kerry — raised his arms and ordered everyone to halt.
As an ethereal silence descended, Mr. Kerry cocked his head in the stillness of one of the world’s last truly wild places.
In that moment, the frozen landscape seemed timeless, but it is actually in grave peril, as Mr. Kerry had been told by scientists only minutes before. The ice across large parts of West Antarctica may be starting to disintegrate because of global warming, and if it goes, the world’s coastal cities face destruction, too.
Gudni Th. Johannesson, the newly elected President of Iceland has said that “We need to defend the ecosystems of the world ocean, stop pollution, warming and ocean acidification as well as excessive fisheries beyond national jurisdiction” in an address to a meeting organized by the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA) and the High Seas Alliance.
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.
On August 31, the High Seas Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) held a PrepCom side event where leading scientists presented the latest developments in ocean mapping and marine spatial planning technologies, and how these tools can be used by policy makers.
Scientists and underwater explorers have discovered submarine mountains scattered beneath the waves that harbor an incredible diversity of marine life. Known as seamounts, these extraordinary places are highly productive oases in the deep sea, and home to extremely fragile, long-lived, rare and sometimes endangered marine life. By rising up from the depths of the ocean to heights of at least 1,000 meters, seamounts increase the upwelling of nutrient rich waters resulting in a remarkable diversity of fishes and other open-ocean animals. Some seamounts function like rest stops for migratory species, such as endangered sperm whales, sea turtles, seabirds and sharks, on vast open-ocean journeys. These remote, deep areas are also a vital frontier for scientific discovery, as research expeditions continue to uncover new and rare marine species.
As African States, we are fully cognisant of the contribution of oceans and seas to our development. In this regard, the far-reaching positive implications as well as the benefits of the BBNJ process will be understood and appreciated even more, now that we are standing at a juncture where ocean-based economic development is at the top of the agenda for many Governments.
Last Friday, US President Obama announced the creation of the world’s largest ocean sanctuary, and today governments from all over the world are meeting at the United Nations in New York to develop a new treaty to save our oceans. This is fantastic news for our blue planet. Two-thirds of the ocean sit outside national borders, called the ‘high seas’. In this area there is a lack of rules governing how it is protected, and as a result our oceans are suffering. Luckily, our governments are now about to change this situation meaning we could be on the verge of a massive step towards reviving our oceans.
Protecting the heath of the high seas is, literally, the biggest global challenge many people have never heard of. It’s therefore no surprise that hardly anyone realises that discussions taking place at the UN over the next two weeks will impact the future of the high seas, the entire global ocean, and therefore the planet. Because whether you live in a first world city by the sea, a land-locked country in the middle of Africa, a small island in the Pacific, or anywhere in between, these discussions affect you.
Late last year, nearly 200 nations came together in Paris to reach a critical global climate agreement. The Paris climate agreement demonstrated that the international community can come together and successfully tackle a grave environmental problem of global scope.
After two weeks of negotiations on a new marine biodiversity agreement, the first UN PrepCom has concluded on a very positive note. These negotiations are the first of four PrepCom sessions (each two weeks long) through the end of 2017, which will hopefully lead to a formal intergovernmental treaty conference in 2018.
During the PrepCom meeting taking place at UN Headquarters from March 28-April 8, the High Seas Alliance held a side event for government representatives entitled “Governance Principles, EIAs, and Operationalization in the New Instrument.”