The international community has its last best opportunity to conserve ocean biodiversity on the high seas when it meets this week at the United Nations for the final scheduled set of negotiations on a new treaty under the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), following decades of planning, political debate and more recently COVID-19 postponements.
The talks, which for the first time focus on ocean biodiversity conservation in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), also known as “the High Seas,” come at a critical moment for marine life and an environment that is vital to the global food system and the fight against climate change. Currently only 1.2 percent of the High Seas enjoys any protections.
“After decades of negotiations and planning, the world has a once-in-a-generation chance to build meaningful protections for an environment that supports life, as we know it,” said Peggy Kalas of the High Seas Alliance “With climate change and industrial-scale overexploitation now causing a startling decline in marine biodiversity, we may not get another chance.”
“It is hard to exaggerate how crucial these talks are for the multi-trillion dollar global ocean economy, a vital food source for billions of people, and perhaps the best protection the planet has from climate change,” said Kalas.
Covering nearly half of the world’s surface, the high seas—a true global commons—is only protected by a loose patchwork of poorly enforced rules that are ill-suited to address a growing onslaught of pressures to the water column and seabed below, including climate change, pollution, fishing, and emerging activities like deep-sea mining.
The negotiations, meant to reach an agreement on a legally binding treaty to govern the sustainable use of BBNJ, began in 2006 and have since benefited from increased scientific awareness of high seas marine life and habitats, as well as the dangers they face from human activities. Once considered to be largely devoid of life or too remote to face serious threats from human overexploitation, a body of evidence now shows the high seas to support a vibrant marine ecology that is vital to the global food supply, terrestrial ecology, and the planet’s climate system.
But the increasing reach of shipping vessels and seabed mining technology as well as new activities like “bioprospecting” have suddenly put the High Seas and the deep sea floor within reach, threatening to unravel the ocean’s complex web of life and undo important progress made on land to cut greenhouse gas emissions. With new and emerging threats facing the ocean every single day, we need political leadership to reach a robust agreement at these talks.
To ensure that the new treaty goes beyond the status quo and is worthy of the decades of effort to address ocean governance gaps, it must at a minimum provide the elements below.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
Highly and fully protected, well-managed and representative networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) are the most effective tool to protect ocean life in the face of ever-increasing human activities in the ocean space and their impacts, climate change and their cumulative impacts, though currently, there is no legal mechanism to establish comprehensively protected MPAs beyond national boundaries.
- It is critical that the new Treaty itself mandates the establishment and effective management of a network of representative and well-connected MPAs, including fully protected marine reserves, following scientific recommendations.
- The Treaty should give authority to the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to establish MPAs and other ABMTs for conservation management, with a management plan and concrete measures to achieve their objectives, in order to fill the gaps created by regional or sectoral organizations undertaking disparate measures that do not address the cumulative, cross- sectoral and climate-related impacts of human activities in the high seas.
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
Human activities in the high seas and deep seafloor are currently subject to an antiquated and inconsistent patchwork of environmental assessment and management practices. An overhaul is needed to operationalize the general EIA provisions in UNCLOS and reflect modern EIA practice. The new Agreement must:
- Establish uniform, modern environmental assessment and consultation requirements for all proposed activities that may have more than a minor or transitory effect on marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction, regardless of where those activities are located;
- Require that activities that may affect marine biodiversity in ABNJ, regardless of where they take place, are assessed and managed to prevent significant adverse effects;
- Ensure that the interests of the international community as a whole are represented by requiring EIAs to be conducted by other regional and sectoral organizations consistent with the Treaty’s standards and consultation procedures.
Marine Genetic Resources and Capacity Building and Marine Technology Transfer
Parties must recognize that the “package” of issues is not just politically linked, but mutually supportive too. It is vital that all countries can both equitably benefit from the sustainable use of marine biological diversity, but also fulfill obligations to conserve biodiversity of the high seas, through:
- A fair and equitable access and benefit-sharing regime for marine genetic resources; and
- An effective funding mechanism to enable capacity building and the transfer of marine technology for implementing the Agreement, particularly through support for oceanic sciences, monitoring and other technologies, and institutional, academic and individual capacity.
Cross-cutting issues are those that affect a number of elements and are integrated throughout the new agreement.
- Pending the establishment of the MPA and associated management plan and measures, the treaty should empower State Parties to adopt interim and emergency measures to ensure that the objective of the area is not undercut by conflicting activities.
CONTACTS – For support please contact:
Patricia Roy + 34 696 905 907 – CET
Michael Crocker +1 207 522 1366 – EST
Mirella von Lindenfels +44 7717 844 352 – BST
Brittney Francis – + 647 394 1890 – EST