States gathering at the United Nations (UN) in New York next week (28 March) will begin work towards an agreement to protect life in the high seas, closing some of the largest legal loopholes in the ocean.The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was negotiated more than 30 years ago but did not address marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, leaving nearly two-thirds of the global ocean largely unprotected. The ocean is the largest biosphere on earth and a central component of the climate system; comprising approximately 75% of the ocean, the high seas provides ecosystem services that are critical to coastal areas and the planet as a whole.
This two-week meeting of the agreement’s Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) is the first of four that will take place before the end of 2017. This is when states will determine the elements that will form the basis for a formal and final treaty negotiation to commence in 2018. It is during this crucial phase that key issues such as the scope of the treaty; how marine protected areas should be created and managed; the inclusion of environmental impact assessments; access to and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources and technology transfer, will be addressed.
This negotiation is complicated because the high seas are the common concern of humankind and belong to no one; activities already take place there and the interests of a number of sectors such as shipping and fishing have to be addressed. The agreement’s advocates are optimistic that a robust outcome can be achieved, however, pointing to the recent success at the Climate Negotiations in Paris, Jessica Battle, Marine Manager at WWF International said: “In Paris we managed to take action to protect the global climate system; now we need to transfer that energy to the global ocean. Both are essential for the functioning of the planet and the ocean is on the sharp end of climate impacts and climate solutions.”
The High Seas Alliance (HSA) has been campaigning for what will be the first ocean treaty focused on marine biodiversity, since it was founded in 2011. High Seas Alliance Coordinator Peggy Kalas said: “Providing half the oxygen we breathe and as one of the largest carbon sinks on earth, the ocean is what makes our planet habitable. Ensuring its health and resilience is not a choice, but a necessity and this landmark marine biodiversity agreement being negotiated is our chance to create real change on how our shared ocean resources are protected.”
“This series of meetings could lead to some of the most significant new protections for the ocean in a generation,” said Elizabeth Wilson, who directs international ocean policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Nations have the chance to come together to close management gaps on the high seas and show their commitment to marine conservation beyond borders.”
“We now have the historical opportunity to change the way two thirds of our ocean are managed and develop a comprehensive global regime that will ensure the conservation of marine life for future generations” said Veronica Frank, senior political advisor at Greenpeace International. “People around the world will be watching this process closely and expect governments at the UN to take the right decisions for our ocean and for the life of millions of people who depends upon it.”
Cover photo by High Seas Alliance