A once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionise ocean governance kicks off at the United Nations
Human impact has become ubiquitous across the ocean. Plastic has been found over 10,000 metres deep in the Mariana Trench, fishing takes place in over 90 per cent of marine waters, and all of the ocean is experiencing serious changes brought on by climate change. Despite the fact that virtually nowhere in the ocean is unaffected by our activities, very little of it is afforded any protection (currently less than eight per cent of the ocean is protected). This is especially true of the two thirds of the ocean which lie beyond national jurisdiction, the high seas. Belonging to no-one, this expanse of water is governed only by out-dated regulations, allowing fishing, shipping and deep-sea mining to expand, virtually unchecked. (See our High and Deep Seas Insight for more background on high seas governance.)
But the tide may be beginning to turn: the UN is leading a process which could represent the biggest change for the high seas in a generation. Just two weeks ago, over 190 nations gathered in New York to start official negotiations on a new High Seas Biodiversity Treaty. This treaty is a huge opportunity to change the way governance for the high seas works, by bringing in new legal requirements for the protection of biodiversity in this blue half of our planet. The high seas are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, and are where many marine species spend most of their lives. The ocean and its inhabitants are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change, fish populations are at the brink of full-scale collapse, and these changes have consequences far beyond the ocean itself. Safeguarding the resilience of the ocean through the protection of its wilderness areas in the high seas has never been more urgent and important.
How did we get here?
Although this was the first meeting of the official negotiations, concerns were first put forward about the lack of protection for biodiversity on the high seas about a decade ago. Since then, it has taken years of meetings, workshops, and committees to finally arrive at the conference which was held this month. Throughout this process, the role of civil society has been crucial. Our long-term partner, the High Seas Alliance, represents a coalition of NGOs that has been present at many of these meetings and has hosted workshops and side events covering everything from strategy development to educating negotiators about species living in the high seas.
What will this Treaty do?
The new Treaty will focus on the “conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in the high seas”. It will be the first global treaty developed in relation to the oceans in over two decades. Currently, there are hardly any obligations for management organisations on the high seas to impose basic conservation measures, such as designating marine protected areas (MPAs) or carrying out environmental impact assessments. The new Treaty will, among other things, bring in legal requirements for the development of these two management mechanisms in particular. This will be a crucial step in achieving the goal recommended by scientists that we protect 30 per cent of the ocean, and pave the way for much-needed regulation on destructive activities at sea.
What happened at the negotiations?
I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first week of discussions and witness the process unfold at the UN. The first thing that struck me, as I only just managed to find a spot in the main conference room, was the intense interest in the conference. Having seen biodiversity forgotten and overlooked in so many situations, it was incredibly powerful to see a room packed full of people who were spending two weeks specifically discussing how to protect biodiversity on the high seas.
“The level of anticipation and the buzz in the room shows that states are really serious about negotiating a new treaty”. Duncan Curry, Legal Advisor to the High Seas Alliance
I was also struck by how human the negotiators were. I think it’s easy to imagine UN delegates as somewhat robotic characters hammering out indecipherable declarations, but after attending the conference in person I saw that the personalities of those in attendance were integral to the process. The High Seas Alliance in particular brought a lighter note and some humour into the room with their crocheted high seas mascots.
As the conference progressed it was clear that these negotiations were being taken very seriously by delegates. Statement after statement was put forward containing detailed proposals on how various elements of the Treaty could work, showing that negotiators were really engaging with the process. Obviously, there were those that were less supportive than others of strong conservation measures. Russia, for example, argued that we should only protect areas for limited periods of time, and that current fishing activities should not be affected by this Treaty. Encouragingly though, there was general support put forward for a global mechanism to determine areas that should be protected under the new Treaty, and broad support for the role and value of science in this process.
Although the process leading up to this point was a long one, the aim of this set of negotiations is to produce a Treaty after two years. This is an ambitious timeline, and to reach it, it is important to develop a written draft of the Treaty as soon as possible. This draft can then act as the basis for in-depth discussion between countries on the finer details. As the conference drew to a close, it was agreed that the draft text would be developed by February 2019, prior to the next round of negotiations to be held in late March. The feeling among the NGO community was positive, as throughout the two-week period there was no major opposition to the key aspects of the proposed Treaty, and the timeline for the production of this draft is ambitious and in-line with development of the full Treaty in the two-year time-frame.
Perhaps one of the greatest successes of the conference was the launch of the new High Seas Alliance ‘Treaty Tracker’. This was an incredible endeavour, where High Seas Alliance members posted up-to-date summaries of official statements and analyses from the team throughout the conference, aimed at demonstrating more strongly than ever the presence of civil society and the public at these negotiations. Over the course of the conference, the key High Seas Alliance hashtag, #OneOceanOnePlanet, created to remind us that all of the ocean is connected to all of us, was used thousands of times.
The next big stage in the process will come early next year, when governments and civil society organisations will be discussing the first draft of the new Treaty. Synchronicity Earth is committed to continued support for this important work through our High and Deep Seas Programme, and we look forward to seeing how this process will progress next year. After decades of being forgotten, this vital half of our planet is finally getting the attention and hopefully the protection it must have to preserve future generations of all species, including our own.