Industry turning blind eye on UN high seas treaty

Published on
September 7, 2017

The seafood industry has largely stayed out of negotiations for a new international treaty that would allow for marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas, said the leader of the main industry organization participating in the treaty process.

The legally binding United Nations treaty currently under development would be signed by countries under the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea treaty. In July, the years-long treaty process took a major step forward; the next stage involves convening an Intergovernmental Conference, which could happen as soon as 2018.

The treaty would include provisions for area-based management tools such as MPAs, as well as a process for conducting environmental impact assessments of certain high seas activities.

Paul Holthus, the founding president and CEO of the World Ocean Council, told SeafoodSource that his organization was the only industry group to participate in the entire treaty preparatory process in 2016 and 2017. The World Ocean Council is an alliance of various ocean industries, including shipping, oil and gas, fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, and renewable energy.

“To date, we have not seen a lot of interest in the treaty content and process from the seafood and fishing industries, despite the significant implications for the future of these industries,” Holthus said. “The seafood and fishing industries could and should be more proactive in getting involved in the (high seas) treaty process, rather than wait to be consulted. The treaty will move ahead in some form whether or not industry is involved.”

The treaty would benefit from balanced information, constructive input and engagement from all stakeholders, including the seafood and fishing industries, Holthus said. Such involvement would be welcomed, he added.

The first major provision in the treaty would enable MPAs and other area-based management tools on the high seas. Those tools would regulate or prohibit certain activities – or all activities – in defined waters. 

“The treaty will potentially have significant effects on the fishing and seafood industries by determining when, where, what kind, and how much fishing activity can take place in international waters,” Holthus said.

Holthus called for clear definitions and criteria for designating, managing and monitoring MPAs or other specially managed areas. Stakeholders’ roles also need to be clear, as does the relationship between newly developed MPAs and other regional or global area management systems. But the need is clear, he said.

“With the increase in the kinds, levels, extent and duration of ocean economic activity, there is increasingly a need for methods and tools to manage the overall use and ecosystem health of marine areas, based on good science, and risk assessment,” Holthus said.

Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, told SeafoodSource that his group generally opposed MPAs because they are a passive fishery management method. 

“Simply drawing lines on a map and saying don’t fish here is not the type of active stock management that [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and others have seen success with,” Gibbons said.

Other management methods that determine total allowable catch and maximum sustainable yield are, by contrast, active processes that take significant work.

Gibbons said that regional fishery management organizations have helped make fishing more environmentally sustainable, though NFI is still assessing the specific provisions in the proposed high seas treaty.

“While we are supporters of the Law of the Sea work, we are still looking at what this latest proposal might mean,” he said.

The second major provision in the high seas treaty would establish a process for conducting environmental impact assessments for some high seas activities. Such regulation is important, Holthus said, but more clarity is needed on what that would look like.

On the high seas, there are difficult, practical considerations that need to be examined, Holthus said. For example, who conducts the assessments – flag states, a new international institution or some other group? Who pays for the assessments? What kind of stakeholder engagement will be appropriate? What are the reporting and monitoring provisions? What happens when the impacts of an activity are deemed unacceptable?

Holthus called for science-based agreement on the conditions that would trigger an environmental impact assessment, such as certain environmental thresholds. 

“Overall, it is of course important to understand and manage the impacts of human activity on the marine environment, including at the scale of the global ocean,” Holthus said. 

In addition to participating directly in the treaty process, Holthus’ group is monitoring and analyzing the treaty process for members of the World Ocean Council and members of a coalition of those interested in the treaty process.

“The World Ocean Council is ready, wiling and able to facilitate, coordinate and deliver seafood and fishing industry input to the treaty development,” Holthus said.

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