Talks underway at the United Nations (UN) to craft a new international treaty focusing on the protection of marine biodiversity in the high seas took a significant step forward this year. At the conclusion of the fourth and final meeting of the United Nations Preparatory Committee in July, member nations recommended that the UN General Assembly convene negotiations aimed at creating a legally-binding treaty to protect the high seas. The General Assembly must now decide whether to convene an intergovernmental conference to draft a treaty.
The proposed treaty—Agreement on Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction—would fill a legal gap in international law which has left the high seas severely under-regulated. The high seas, which make up about two-thirds of the oceans and cover over 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, are areas that are beyond 200 nautical miles from any country’s shoreline and therefore lay beyond national jurisdiction. Because the high seas are part of the global commons—they are not under the ownership of any individual or government—protecting them requires international cooperation among governments and civil society.
Environmentalists and ocean conservation organizations were optimistic at the result of the meeting. “This is a significant step for the high seas and humanity since we are all dependent on the ocean for a healthy planet,” said Peggy Seas of the High Seas Alliance, an umbrella organization of groups dedicated to ocean conservation. “A new treaty will bring law and governance to this most neglected and besieged part of our world and we are closer to that goal now.”
Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue also expressed her support: “The nations of the world took important steps towards a treaty today,” Earle said. “The high seas are half of the world and need the rule of law. Those who have worked so hard at the UN and in support of this moment, we extend an ocean of gratitude and carry forward optimism for a high seas treaty.”
An Ocean in Common
The health of the world’s oceans is vital to the survival of humankind. Unfortunately, the oceans are facing numerous threats and are not doing so well. Unsustainable fishing practices are depleting fish stocks to the point where over 90 percent of global fisheries are either fully fished or over-exploited. Climate change is wreaking havoc, bleaching coral reefs that support more species per unit area than any other marine environment. The release of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is increasing the acidity of the water in the ocean, which literally suffocates fish that rely on dissolved oxygen in the water. Pollution is contaminating marine habitats and threatening the health of marine ecosystems all over the world.
Despite the importance of the oceans, and the myriad challenges facing them, no centralized governmental organization or regulatory mechanism exists to regulate and govern human activity on the high seas. Instead, several different international agreements exist under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that regulate certain activities such as fishing, seabed mining and shipping, but there is not much coordination between these agreements and they amount to a piecemeal approach to addressing a major global problem. As a result, marine environments are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of human activity.
As Jessica Green, an environmental studies professor at New York University pointed out in the Washington Post in 2016, “preserving all ocean species simply to ensure their continued existence has not been a priority.”
Until now, that is.
The Long and Winding Road to an Ocean Treaty
The current process is many years in the making. While governments have been talking for years, in June 2015 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 69/292, launching exploratory talks to create a legally-binding treaty focusing on regulating marine biodiversity on the high seas. The resolution stressed “the need for a comprehensive global regime to better address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.”
It called for a two-year preparation phase during which the UN Preparatory Committee would deliberate and consider what elements should comprise the treaty. The preparatory phase began in 2016 and has now concluded, with the committee submitting its substantive recommendations on specific elements that should be included in the treaty. It is up to the UN General Assembly to decide whether there exists enough support to move forward with a formal treaty. If they decide to move forward, the next step will be an intergovernmental conference, similar to the United Nations Climate Change Conference that was held in Paris in 2015, where member states will try to come to an agreement on a treaty. Many countries have pushed for a conference in 2018.
While specific details still need to be agreed upon, the treaty would focus on four main issues: creating marine protected areas (MPAs) and marine reserves, conducting environmental impact assessments for maritime activities, providing for technology transfer and capacity-building for developing countries, and managing the economic benefits obtained from marine resources.
Marine protected areas are seen by scientists, researchers and ocean conservationists as the most effective way of protecting areas of the ocean. By limiting or prohibiting extractive activities such as mining and fishing, MPAs reduce the negative impact of human activities and allow marine ecosystems the time and space to recover and rejuvenate. Currently, only 2 percent of the world’s oceans are protected. Scientists believe that a minimum of 30 percent should be protected for MPA policies to be effective. The new ocean treaty would create a framework for identifying, designating, regulating and monitoring MPAs throughout the world.
Funding for environmental impact assessments would attempt to predict the environmental effects of proposed human activities such as fishing or collection of sea life in certain areas, providing a scientific basis for making policy decisions about these areas.
The new treaty would aid developing nations increase their ability to conduct marine research and take action to protect marine life, many of whom lack the technology and capacity to properly assess and protect marine environments.
“We are pleased that the UN Preparatory Committee has completed its mandate and agreed by consensus to recommendations that will move this issue to the next phase of high seas conservation,” said Liz Karan, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect ocean life on the high seas.
Scientific evidence that shows the oceans are in grave danger is piling up. A new ocean treaty that recognizes this as a global problem requiring a global response might provide the best hope of saving them.
- Ryan Patrick Jones