Bringing the Ocean to Society
2 Oct 2018
First talks on High Seas regulations
Negotiations started in September in the UN and will continue until 2020.

The United Nations General Assembly is committed to reduce the number of threats to marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ). Negotiations started in New York City to draw up an international legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in these areas, which cover nearly half of the Earth’s surface.

The states have agreed that the negotiations will be focus on four priority areas:

  • Marine genetic resources, including questions regarding the sharing of benefits arising from their exploitation;
  • So-called “area-based management tools”, which includes marine protected areas;
  • Environmental impact assessments; and
  • Capacity building and the transfer of marine technology.

Institutional provisions like the creation of decision-making and/or scientific authorities, linkages with existing international and regional organisations, etc, and financial provisions will be added to these technical elements. The negotiation process will be organised around four sessions of ten working days – the first took place in September 2018 and will be followed by two sessions in 2019 and one in the first half of 2020.

"The half of our planet which is High Seas is protecting terrestrial life from the worst impacts of climate change," said Prof Alex Rogers from Oxford University, UK. "Yet we do too little to safeguard that or to protect the life within the ocean which is intrinsic to our collective survival. Protecting the biodiversity of the High Seas by bringing good governance and law to the whole ocean is the single most important thing we can do to turn the tide."

"A strong global ocean treaty would allow us to create a network of ocean sanctuaries to protect wildlife, ensure food security for billions of people and help us to tackle climate change," Sandra Schoettner, a marine biologist with Greenpeace, told news agencies.

"The current high seas governance system is weak, fragmented and unfit to address the threats we now face from climate change, illegal and over-fishing, plastics pollution and habitat loss," said Peggy Kalas, from the High Seas Alliance. "This is a historic opportunity to protect the biodiversity and functions of the High Seas through legally binding commitments."

Asked how different the proposed treaty would be from the historic 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Essam Yassin Mohammed, Principal Researcher on Oceans and Environmental Economics at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said “This new treaty is particularly significant because it is the first time the high seas will be governed. These negotiations are an opportunity, not just to protect the health of the oceans, but also to make sure all countries ― not just the wealthy few ― can benefit from the ocean’s resources in a sustainable way. As important as The Law of the Sea is, it only covers the band of water up to 200 miles from the coast. It does not cover the use and sustainable management of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction”.

What exactly are the High Seas and why are they so important?

ABNJ are comprised of the High Seas or the water column beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones, and the seabed beyond the continental shelves of coastal states, formally known as the Area. The term High Seas is often used to describe both areas, though they have different legal statuses under international law: the high seas are governed by a principle of freedom (of navigation, of overflight, of scientific research, etc.), while the Area and its mineral resources are considered the “common heritage of humankind” and are governed by a separate legal framework.

ABNJ contain an exceptional level of biodiversity, the true scale of which is gradually emerging as marine science advances. ABNK provide many different services including fisheries and climate regulation, and they are also crucial for unique ecosystems and species that develop in these extreme conditions (I.e. lack of light, acidity, extreme temperatures and pressure).

Since the adoption of the UN Law of the Sea, human activities in ABNJ have developed exponentially. Almost 90% of world trade is now carried by sea. The depletion nearshore fish stocks have resulted in an increase in fishing activity in the High Seas. Deep-sea mining is starting in the Pacific and companies are lining up to perform in the Indian and Atlantic. Bioprospecting activities to exploit marine genetic resources are developing. Almost one million kilometres of communication cables cross the high seas.

A number of conventions and international organisations cover the High Seas. There are certain rules concerning shipping, fisheries management and environmental protection, but the overall framework is highly fragmented and unable to effectively manage the growing challenges. The relevant international agreements and organisations usually focus on only one sector, or their geographical scope is limited to a specific region, which poses considerable obstacles to the coordination and cooperation needed for effective management. There are also no rules governing the exploitation of marine genetic resources – the current situation is “first-come first-served”.

Since the early 2000s, within different forums, the states have been discussing the challenges linked to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in ABNJ. In 2004, the United Nations General Assembly established a working group to examine these issues. The meetings quickly became characterised by a seemingly intractable divide: on one side, States in favour of drafting a new conservation-focussed international agreement, especially the European Union; and on the other, those that believed better implementation of existing legal instruments would be enough to ensure the protection and sustainable use of ABNJ (e.g. the United States, Russia, Canada and Japan). In 2017, after more than 10 years of technical discussions and political wrangling, the states finally agreed to hold an intergovernmental conference with the aim of drafting an agreement on ABNJ.

Keep learning about what is at stake on the High Seas here.