Why The High Seas Must Be Part of Discussions at the UN Youth4Climate Summit In Rome

Date: 28th September 2021

Authors: Lydia Rysavy (Sweden), John Paul Jose (India), Milla Heckler (United States), Jihyun Lee (South Korea), Fabio Alfaro (Mexico), Catarina Lorenzo (Brazil), Olivia Livingstone (Liberia)

Whether you know them as the High Seas, international waters, or the Latin mare liberum, the bodies of water that lie beyond national jurisdiction are key to ensuring the survival of our planet and the human race.

It sounds dramatic, but the ocean —though often left out of climate conversations— is one of the most vital tools for tackling climate change. In fact, there are a number of reasons why healthy High Seas are vital for humanity; for example, they are one of the most important carbon sinks on our planet, having taken up around a quarter of excess CO2 from human-generated emissions. Furthermore, intact ecosystems in all parts of the ocean, including the High Seas, contribute to carbon transport and sequestration from surface waters to the deep sea, where it can be stored for long periods of time. And let’s not forget that ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves offer protection for coastal communities from storms and floods exacerbated by the climate crisis.

Being free from any one country’s control or economic zone, the High Seas are, to many, out of sight and out of mind. Because of this, their protection has been woefully underfunded and given comparatively less consideration than the beach fronts and ocean views we’re more conscious of. As such, they are currently a hotspot for destructive practices such as bottom trawling (towing a net across the ocean floor to capture fish, destroying ocean habitat along the way) and illegal fishing practices. These activities, alongside deep-sea mining, are rapidly exacerbating the effects of climate change, in turn leading to extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, lower air quality, massive declines in biodiversity and an increase in natural disasters around the world – all of which threaten millions of lives across the globe. 

From a human rights and international development perspective, the current lack of regulation has led to the monopolization of fishing areas in the High Seas by only a few countries, disadvantaging developing countries and increasing poverty levels in these regions. In a recent Mail & Guardian op-ed written by former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, it was noted that illegal and unreported fishing is currently valued at somewhere between $4.9 billion and $9.5 billion, 30% of which occurs beyond national jurisdiction. Without filling in ocean legal and governance gaps to better distribute the ocean’s resources in a sustainable and fair manner, poorer countries inevitably will be left out. 

But don’t give up hope for our planet just yet. The UN General Assembly is in the process of negotiating a High Seas Treaty, which will decide and implement regulations to help protect the ocean, close governance gaps and ensure its resources are protected and the benefits equally shared. But for this treaty to be as bold and ambitious as the High Seas require, we need governments, communities, and everyone else to come together to support and finalize this new legally binding international treaty. 

History tells us that these sorts of treaties do work. For example, in 1986, the IWC (International Whaling Commission) agreed on a treaty to ban commercial whaling. According to National Geographic, this has seen the number of humpback whales across the western Indian Ocean soar from fewer than 600 in the late 1970s to more than 30,000 today.

And excitingly, youth movements across the world are growing at rapid rates and pressuring world leaders to drastically amp up climate action and biodiversity protection, through movements such as Fridays For Future, Global Youth Biodiversity Networks, to smaller and local initiatives such as plastic reduction and cleanup campaigns, to ourselves as High Seas Youth Ambassadors advocating for a new High Seas Treaty. Youth across the world are leading the charge for a healthy world and we need world leaders in the lead up and during COP26 to take action that includes the ocean and climate. 

“We cannot continue to treat climate, biodiversity, ocean health and other global crises as separate issues. To find solutions, we must recognize the interconnectedness of planetary systems as well as the interdependence of both societal and environmental sustainability – and act accordingly. Political leaders need to accept that systemic change is needed to ensure the health of the ocean as well as the rest of the planet and its people, and ensure urgent action on all fronts”
— Lydia Rvsavy, High Seas Youth Ambassador 

So as the Youth4Climate: Driving Ambition event kicks off in Rome this week, it is vital that we make the voices of youth heard as we push for a treaty that provides a strong legal process for the establishment, effective management, and enforcement of designated marine protected areas, including marine reserves, in the High Seas. Leaders must heed the call of youth today rather than prioritizing shorter-term interests of sectors that want to exploit the ocean’s natural resources for profit. 

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals call for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources, and in order to achieve this goal, we must finalize a treaty. With our future and the future of our children at stake, this is not a matter to be taken lightly.

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