Negotiations on a conservation agreement for the high seas are currently under way at the United Nations in New York. This agreement has to be ambitious if it is to protect our oceans from profiteers.
After more than a decade of heated debate, the United Nations have begun to negotiate a new agreement on the protection of the high seas. The discussions in New York may not draw a lot of media attention, but that does not diminish their significance: overfishing, marine pollution, climate change, and acidification are increasingly afflicting marine habitats that developed over millions of years. The United Nations wants to agree on internationally binding rules for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans by 2020.
The high seas, which account for almost two thirds of the world’s oceans, do not fall within national jurisdiction and are not adequately protected under existing international agreements. To date, the exploitation of the oceans has tended to be confined to coastal areas, but fishing and other activities are increasingly spreading to the open ocean. And seabed mining presents a new threat: the International Seabed Authority has already granted 28 exploration licences. The mineral resources contained in the seabed could be used in the production of batteries for electric cars and mobile telephones.
The unknown seabed
Even today, spending on space research far outstrips that on marine science. This is all the astonishing given how little of the deep seabed has been explored to date. Indeed, just five percent of the sea floor has been mapped. Nevertheless, we now understand that in addition to hosting a major part of the world’s biodiversity, oceans play a key role in regulating global climate. The ocean takes up a significant share of carbon dioxide from human sources and absorbs nearly all of the Earth’s excess heat.
Ocean currents provide a direct link between coasts and the open seas. But while these currents serve as migration corridors for shoals of fish and other forms of marine life such as whales and turtles, they also act as ‘conveyor belts’ in the distribution of plastic waste and other forms of land-based marine pollution. In light of these insights, marine scientists and conservationists have long called for a comprehensive and binding agreement to improve the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems in high-seas areas.
30 per cent of the world’s oceans should be protected
Achieving this requires the creation of a network of marine protected areas in the high seas. The United Nations have pledged to conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Many marine scientists are calling for this target to be revised upwards to 30 per cent in order to better protect marine biodiversity. But this is an as yet distant goal: just 4 per cent of the world’s oceans are currently protected – and most of these areas lie within territorial waters. Marine protected areas in the high seas remain a rarity. Together with New Zealand, Australia, and numerous Pacific Island nations, the member states of the European Union want to change this with the new agreement. But countries with major fishing interests, such as Iceland, Japan, Russia and South Korea, are demanding that fishing be exempted from the treaty. This would, of course, substantially undermine the positive impacts of new marine protected areas.
The fragmented state of ocean governance must also be overcome if the new agreement is to be effective. While the preamble to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – the ‘constitution for the seas’ – notes that “the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole”, shipping, fisheries, and deep seabed mining are all regulated separately. In addition, there is little coordination between the responsible institutions and holistic assessments of the associated environmental impacts are not available.
Mining zone or natural world heritage site?
Last year, for example, the International Seabed Authority, the UN body tasked with regulating seabed mining, granted an exploration license covering an area known as the Lost City. This unique site features hydrothermal vents and chimneys made of calcium carbonate 30 to 60 metres tall. Meanwhile, another UN body – UNESCO – has proposed that the site might meet the criteria for World Heritage status. The new treaty, it is hoped, will prevent such conflicts from arising in future.
Who profits from the exploitation of marine resources?
Negotiations around the topic of marine genetic resources also promise to be complex – both in technical and political terms. Companies use genetic resources from organisms found in the high seas to develop and manufacture medications and cosmetic products. Under the current regulatory regime, they are not required to share any profits made from these applications. The few industrialized states with the technical means to undertaking so-called ‘bio-prospecting’ are keen to maintain the status quo. Other countries, in particular the Group of 77 (G77), a coalition of newly industrialised and developing nations, consider these resources to be a common heritage of mankind and are demanding that a mechanism be established to ensure that profits derived from their exploitation are shared equitably.
Ascertaining the extent of these profits is complicated, however, due to the considerable lag time between discovery and application. On top of this, the line between bio-prospecting and conventional marine science – the freedom of which is guaranteed under the Law of the Sea – is often blurred. Little progress is likely to be made unless the industrialised industrial nations are willing to make concessions.
Reaching a new agreement will be far from easy. The protection and exploitation of marine resources in the high seas are highly contentious political issues. Rival groups of states, UN organisations and user groups will need to agree who will bear overall responsibility in future. The outcome remains uncertain: a new UN agency might emerge, equipped with comprehensive powers to protect the world’s oceans, or merely a weak framework agreement that vests individual states with the responsibility to establish marine protected areas. The negotiations in New York over the coming two years will decide the future of our oceans.
This article was first published on the ZEIT ONLINE platform on 18 April 2018.