How a Global Ocean Treaty Could Protect Biodiversity in the High Seas

A trawler in Johnstone Strait, BC, Canada. Human activities such
as pollution, overfishing, mining, geo-engineering and climate
change have made an international agreement to protect the high
seas more critical than ever. Credit: Winky/cc by 2.0

By External Source
Jun 8 2020 (IPS)

Oceans cover 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface. But, because
many of us spend most of our lives on land, the 362 million square
kilometres of blue out there aren’t always top of mind.

While vast, oceans are not empty. They are teeming with life and connected to
society through
history and culture
, shipping and economic activity,
geopolitics
and recreation.

But oceans — along with coastal people and marine species —
are vulnerable, and good ocean governance is
critical
to protect these expanses from pollution,
overfishing
and climate change, to name just
some of the threats
.

The laws, institutions and regulations in place for the oceans
are a multi-layered patchwork and always a work in progress.

Common heritage of humankind

Some characterize oceans as the “common
heritage of humankind
.†As such, the United Nations plays a
critical role in ocean governance, and the
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
is a key
international agreement. The agreement grants coastal and island
states authority over swaths of ocean extending 200 nautical miles
(360 kilometres) from the shore. These are called exclusive
economic zones (EEZ).

EEZs are domestic spaces. Countries enshrine law and delegate
authority to state agencies that lead monitoring, management and
enforcement in these zones.

Indigenous peoples also assert jurisdictional
authority
and coastal peoples hold critical insight about
coastal and marine ecosystems. Governance is improved when state
agencies share power and collaborate.

For example, during the Newfoundland cod collapse, inshore
fishermen had
local ecological knowledge
about changing cod stock dynamics
that might have helped avoid the disaster.

 

A turtle swims in a Marine Protected Area. Credit: Foreign and
Commonwealth Office

 

Areas beyond national jurisdiction

A vast portion of the ocean lies beyond EEZs: 64 per cent by
area and 95 per cent by volume. These regions are often referred to
as the high seas. The high seas are important for
international trade
, fishing fleets,
undersea
telecommunications cables
and are of
commercial interest to mining companies
. The high seas also
host a wide array of ecosystems and species. Many of these are
understudied or altogether unrecorded
.

UN agreements identify high seas using a technical term
“areas
beyond national jurisdiction
†that refers to the water
column. The sea floor is identified separately and called
“the
area
.†UNCLOS and other pieces of international law regulate
activity in these spaces and are responsible for ensuring that no
single country or company dominates or benefits unfairly.

Other multilateral, sector-based arrangements manage
particularly complex resources. For example, regional fisheries
management organizations
bring nation states together to
collaborate on monitoring and managing fish stocks, like tuna, that
have large ranges and cross multiple borders and boundaries.

 

The biodiversity governance gap

Currently, international law does not meaningfully address
biodiversity monitoring and conservation in the high seas. This
“biodiversity governance gap†has
been of concern for the past two decades
.

Without a binding mechanism under international law, countries
are not obligated to co-operate on developing and implementing
conservation measures in the high seas. In addition, monitoring the
impacts of various economic activities, such as fishing and mining,
on biodiversity is piecemeal and inadequate. Marine species or even
entire ecosystems could be lost before we have had a chance to
identify and
understand
them.

On Dec. 24, 2017, the UN General Assembly voted to convene a
multi-year process to develop a treaty on “the conservation and sustainable use of
marine biological diversity of areas beyond national
jurisdiction
.â€

Three of the scheduled negotiation sessions have taken place,
while the fourth and final one, scheduled for March 2020, was
postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some progress has been
made. Notably, the draft treaty
addresses four key areas: marine genetic resources; area-based
management tools, including marine protected areas; environmental
impact assessments and capacity building and the transfer of marine
technology.

Yet, many
disagreements remain
.

For example, countries diverge on the extent to which governance
should prioritize the principle of oceans as the “common heritage
of humankind.†Very pragmatic questions underlie this tension:
should marine genetic sequences be commercialized? If so, how would
this work and will it be possible to agree on a way to share
benefits fairly? These are critical
and how they are addressed will determine if persistent inequities
between the Global North and Global South are lessened or
exacerbated.

Another challenge relates to marine protected areas (MPAs),
especially how they are defined and implemented. What levels of
protection are needed for an area to count as an MPA? How much
should the treaty predetermine processes used to establish new MPAs
and how will MPA rules be enforced?

 

Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

COVID-19: Negotiations cut adrift?

Has postponing the final round of negotiations cut high seas
biodiversity negotiations adrift? A European
research team is surveying
participants and experts to learn
what impact the disruption may have. However, it is unlikely that
the treaty will fall completely by the wayside. Delegates and
negotiators may well continue to informally discuss options with
one another and refine positions with an eye towards reaching
consensus when rescheduling is possible.

A ratified treaty covering biodiversity in the high seas would
be an exciting layer to add to the ocean governance patchwork.

But, delegates and negotiators always have to make concessions
during talks, and disagreements often persist after the treaty has
been signed. Implementation can be as challenging and contentious
as negotiation itself. Various human dimensions and economic
challenges will also continue to need attention, including
human trafficking
, perverse fishing subsidies
and our collective responsibility to small
island states that may be submerged
as sea levels rise.

These challenges point to other international forums — the
World Trade Organization, International Labour Organization and the
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — and serve to remind
us of the myriad ways that we are all connected to, and by,
oceans.

 

Jennifer
Silver
, Associate Professor, Department of Geography,
Environment and Geomatics,
University of Guelph
; Leslie
Acton
, Assistant Professor,
The University of Southern Mississippi
; Lisa
Campbell
, Professor of Marine Affairs and Policy, Duke
University
, and Noella
Gray
, Associate Professor of Geography,
University of Guelph

This article is republished from The Conversation under a
Creative Commons license. Read the
original article
.

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How a Global Ocean Treaty Could Protect Biodiversity in the High
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How a Global Ocean Treaty Could Protect Biodiversity in the
High Seas