Turning the tide for High Seas Conservation

Image © NOAA Office of Ocean Explorations and Research

By |2018-09-27T08:47:07+00:00September 27th, 2018|Advocacy, Biodiversity, Fisheries, Ocean, Oceans, Protected Areas|Comments Off on Turning the tide for High Seas Conservation

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.

Origami high seas animals at the UN conference. Photo by IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

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.

High Seas Alliance Dumbo octopus at the UN conference. Photo by IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

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 glo