Treaty to enable high seas marine protected areas takes step forward

Published on
August 3, 2017

The United Nations has advanced a step closer to an international treaty to protect marine life on the high seas, with an aim of setting up a mechanism for creating marine protected areas in areas beyond national jurisdictions.

International waters outside countries’ exclusive economic zones make up 60 percent of the ocean and cover almost half of the surface of the earth. The waters are rife with marine life, including many threatened species, but are subject to little governance.

The new treaty would update the 35-year-old United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea by adding provisions for marine conservation. 

In the last several decades, the array of human-caused threats to the ocean has surged. Fishing pressures have increased, noise from heavy ships disrupts marine mammals, gyres of plastic waste swirl and oil spills slick the waters. Additionally, rising ocean temperatures and higher acidity resulting from humanity’s carbon emissions threaten whole ecosystems.

“UNCLOS was negotiated at a time when we could not foresee the human footprint stretching into the deep ocean or the high seas, and so it left this vast expanse of ocean unprotected,” Peggy Kalas, the coordinator of the High Seas Alliance, told SeafoodSource. “We need the new treaty to close this gap.”

Passing a treaty update is a long and complicated process, Kalas said. In July, a preparatory committee recommended advancing to an Intergovernmental Conference, which is the body that would debate the actual treaty text. The United Nations General Assembly needs to approve the Intergovernmental Conference, which could convene as soon as 2018. A couple of years of negotiations would follow, and the U.N. could finalize a new treaty as soon as the end of 2019.

Though the decades-old UNCLOS treaty addresses deep-sea mining and freedom of the high seas in areas beyond national jurisdictions, it doesn’t address biodiversity. At the time, scientists had barely discovered some of the most exotic deep-sea habitats and creatures, such as undersea vents and organisms that don’t depend on sunlight.

Human pressures on marine life have since ramped up, with technology enabling fishing farther and deeper than previously imagined. When the UNCLOS treaty was first enacted in 1982, humanity was catching roughly two million metric tons of fish per year, according to Douglas McCauley, an ecologist and conservation biologist at University of California, Santa Barbara. Today, catches are closer to five million MT.

“We are fishing on the high seas with more tech and more power than ever before,” McCauley told SeafoodSource. “The biggest trawler today is a vessel of about 14,000 gross MT. There was nothing like that on the sea several decades ago.”

Climate change threatens fisheries, and the seafood they provide; the ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the heat from man-made climate change. The cost of rising temperatures and more acidic waters could be dire: one study pegged the cost to global fisheries under a high carbon dioxide emissions scenario at USD 10 billion (EUR 8.5 billion) in annual revenue, McCauley said.

Advocates say that marine protected areas – and a mechanism for creating them in the new treaty – are needed to allow fish and other organisms a protected space to adapt to fast-changing marine conditions. 

“By increasing the productivity of marine life, large reserves would reduce the risk of localized extinction and increase population sizes, thereby increasing resilience to stress and promoting adaptation,” Gladys Martinez, an attorney with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, a pan-American advocacy group, told SeafoodSource.

Like the international Paris Climate Accord that most of the world’s nations agreed to in November 2015, an updated high seas treaty would demonstrate collective commitment to tackling an environmental threat to the global commons, Martinez said. But unlike the Paris agreement, the high seas treaty would not specifically address climate change-causing carbon emissions.

The road to an updated high seas treaty will be long, with potential opposition from the fishing industry and deep-sea energy developers, Martinez said. 

“These industries have greatly benefited from the lack of international regulations, so it is in their interest to preserve the status quo as much as possible,” she said.

Negotiators will also have to overcome ignorance about the importance and value of the high seas – and the risks of failing to act, Kristina Gjerde, the senior high seas advisor at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told SeafoodSource. But international collaboration on marine science will help overcome that, Gjerde added.

Marine protected areas, a more standardized process for assessing environmental impacts and scientific capacity building and sharing will all be needed to address the gaps left in the UNCLOS, Gjerde said.

“What the (UNCLOS) drafters did not envisage was the cascade of cumulative impacts now assaulting our ocean that requires a more coherent, comprehensive and coordinated response,” Gjerde said.

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