UN treaty negotiations to conserve and protect nearly two thirds of the ocean re-convene today (19 August 2019), in what is widely regarded as the greatest opportunity in a generation to turn the tide on ocean degradation and biodiversity loss.
Following over a decade of discussions at the UN, this two-week session of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is the third in a series of four negotiating sessions through 2020 for a new legally-binding treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. For the first time, and at the mid-way point of the IGC, governments will engage in text-based negotiations. These negotiations are vital because currently there is no overarching legal framework for these global commons to safeguard the ocean’s marine life or its vital role in provisioning services – such as generating oxygen and regulating the climate.
“The high seas cover half our planet and are vital to the functioning of the whole ocean and make the Earth habitable. The current high seas governance system is weak, fragmented and unfit to address the threats we now face in the 21st century from climate change, illegal and overfishing, plastics pollution and habitat loss. This is an historic opportunity to protect the biodiversity and functions of the high seas through legally binding commitments” said Peggy Kalas, Coordinator of the High Seas Alliance.
The ocean’s key role in mitigating climate change, which includes absorbing 90% of the extra heat and 26% of the excess carbon dioxide created by human sources, has had a devastating effect on the ocean itself. Managing the multitude of other anthropogenic stressors exerted on it will increase its resilience to climate change and protect unique marine ecosystems, many of which are still unexplored and undiscovered. Because these are international waters, the conservation measures needed can only be put into place via a global treaty under UN auspices.
Membership of the High Seas Alliance has grown rapidly over the last year with more organisations joining the push to achieve a strong and robust treaty, and attendance at the negotiating session is expected to be its highest yet. The Alliance will continue to provide its TreatyTracker (a web-based platform) to share updates from the negotiations and will be making interventions on key issues under discussion.
Negotiations will take place in a mixture of open and closed sessions, with government representatives negotiating text that includes ways to protect and conserve the high seas by establishing:
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): MPAs are widely acknowledged as essential for building ocean resilience, but without a treaty there is no mechanism to enable their creation on the high seas.
Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs): Although some human activities are partially regulated in areas of the high seas, there is no universal legal framework for conducting EIAs to guard against potential environmental harm.
Marine Genetic Resources, Capacity Building, and Marine Technology Transfer: Many countries are concerned that they will not benefit from or have the capacity to undertake research into high seas species and will lose out on potentially vast new ocean resources, such as marine genetic resources (MGRs) that could provide new pharmaceuticals. The treaty could create mechanisms to build capacity in developing countries to undertake such research as well as implement obligations that will be established under the treaty.