The Political Challenges of Describing EBSAs

Date: 27th August 2018

The technical and scientific subsidiary body of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) or otherwise known as SBSTTA, met in July, in Canada, to discuss a pathway to review existing and describe new marine areas of ecological and biological significance and to recommend on ways to improve scientific credibility and transparency of the process.

Since formally setting a process to map areas of significant marine ecological and biological values (known as EBSAs- Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas), in 2008, the CBD has described 319 areas across the globe to date. Originally intended for the description of EBSAs in the high seas, some countries opted to extend the exercise to jurisdictional waters.

In view of new scientific information and new methodologies to assess the marine environment, countries are engaged in negotiating ways to progress with the work, including the reviewing existing and describing new EBSAs. However, while science progresses, providing conservationists with the evidence needed to inform even more robust tools for biodiversity conservation, political hurdles still need to be overcome in protecting species from extinction.

Some issues of the EBSAs review process could not be resolved at the SBSTTA 22 meeting due to very high political interest. Instead, they were sent forward to COP 14 as ‘pending issues’ and will be negotiated to a final decision then.

Issues related to sovereign rights in jurisdictional waters and consequently the question around whose responsibility it is to review EBSAs was one of the main points of discussion. Some countries believe a review of EBSAs should be performed by national experts and not be sent to COP approval. Others defend that transparency and consistency of the process moving forward would benefit if the review was conducted by a regional or global body of experts, with final approval by a COP. What many conservationists now fear is that this will allow for political motivations within countries to drive the review and affect which EBSAs are deemed most relevant.

Agreeing on a process to review and describe EBSAs in the high seas was less controversial at the SBSTTA meeting. Most CBD parties recognize that the exercise of describing EBSAs within this forum is solely a scientific exercise and that it is the role of the United Nations General Assembly to address issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. There is an expectation that described EBSAs in the high seas can be a key area- based management tool to inform the new BBNJ instrument currently under negotiation.

BirdLife International, a High Seas Alliance member, was present at the July SBSTTA meeting advocating for outcomes to be strongly science-based. Data of over 600 marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas have been used to inform described EBSAs to date in workshops in all regional oceans.

Cover photo by Joel Fulgencio on Unsplash

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