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An 'alphabet soup' of high seas rules

Marine experts urged nations to improve how the high seas are governed, saying the global commons needs better conservation and sharing.

Marine experts urged nations to improve how the high seas are governed, saying the global commons needs better conservation and sharing to sustain fishing, shipping, mining and other industry.

A two-day conference hosted by French and international organizations delved into management of the high seas, which cover 45% of the planet.

Because these ocean areas and deep seabeds lie beyond national jurisdictions, they fall within a patchwork of laws overseen mostly by United Nations-affiliated international organizations.

High seas conservation also is among the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Coastal and marine resources provide sustenance, livelihoods and tourism, contributing US$28 trillion a year to the global economy in so-called ecosystem services, the U.N. estimates.

The "U.N. alphabet soup that makes up global governance of the oceans and the high seas" needs improvement, said conference participant Julian Jackson of Pew Charitable Trusts.

Better coordination needed

The current patchwork governance of the high seas puts the onus on marine scientists and other experts to guide decision makers toward better policies.

"It is critical to educate the public, industry and private sector about the importance of the high seas to convince political leaders to make the right decisions," said Philippe Vallette, director general of the French national sea center Nausicaá in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Nausicaá hosted the High Seas International Conference to raise awareness about international waters.

Co-organizers included France’s national biodiversity agency and five international organizations: the Food and Agriculture Organization; Global Ocean Forum; U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO; World Ocean Network; and International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.

Negotiations have been underway at the United Nations towards new international agreements that would permit sustainable uses of the high seas among commercial and national interests. The new laws would fall under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Everything from deep-sea mining to new patents, commercial applications and discoveries could be affected; some businesses support additional regulation because they want greater legal certainty before making more investments.

Wealthier nations, as is usual with development scenarios, have the advantage when it comes to monitoring, enforcement, regulation and marine sciences, which are aided by UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Advocates favor a longer-term approach.

"The most effective marine protected areas have the strongest protection measures and a long-term focus — lessons that should be applied to high seas conservation," Kristina Gjerde, a high seas policy advisor for IUCN based in Poland, told the French conference.