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High seas treaty a step closer to reality

Diplomats, experts and international organizations are rushing to protect the rich biodiversity of open oceans against commercial pressures.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Depleted fish stocks from illegal and under-regulated fishing. Deep seabed minerals targeted in a boom of company licensing. Deep sea genomes hunted by food and drug makers seeking new products.

Diplomats, experts and international organizations are rushing to protect the rich and mysterious biodiversity of open oceans against mounting commercial pressures. No effective or coordinated system of global governance is in place to regulate ocean areas that lie beyond the control of any country and cover almost half the planet.

That may be about to change. Delegates from 193 nations gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York for a conference this month to create the first draft of a legally binding international treaty they hope to adopt by 2020. The treaty is intended to strengthen marine protections on the high seas — those international waters that are beyond the 200 nautical mile (370 kilometer) jurisdiction of coastal nations.

It was the first intergovernmental conference on an international legally binding instrument under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, aimed at conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Singapore's senior state counsel, Rena Lee, said a draft text will be sent to delegations by January to use as the basis for more negotiations in March.

"There was a palpable sense of optimism in the room, as it was evident that there is a clear path towards a treaty to protect the high seas," the High Seas Alliance, an advocacy partnership of 37 international organizations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, reported. "The text will aim to capture where there is commonality, to provide a balanced response to what has been captured to date and to highlight the areas where more work is required."

The U.N. General Assembly agreed in December 2017 on the need for an international conference to hammer out a high seas treaty. After the first session this year, two more meetings are planned for 2019 and a fourth one is scheduled for 2020.

The treaty is meant to extend the UNCLOS' legal framework by requiring sustainable uses of marine biological diversity beyond national borders. Its significance lies in formally evaluating how fish stocks, marine genetics and other high seas resources should be globally administered, conserved and sustained.

After it came into force in 1994, UNCLOS created three new international organizations to manage ocean resources: the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, based in Hamburg, Germany; the International Seabed Authority, based in Kingston, Jamaica; and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, based in the U.N.'s headquarters at New York.

But the treaty — which has more than 165 parties, but not the United States, the only major nation that does not belong — has no jurisdiction over the high seas. Another extension to it, the U.N.'s Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement, entered into force in 2001 and has 86 parties, including the United States. It covers species that migrate among or are found in more than one exclusive economic zone.

No universal law exists that protects marine species and minerals in the high seas — which cover about 45% of Earth's surface.

"Marine biodiversity knows no boundaries. We have identified gaps in its management. And the only way to solve it is by coming up with a global agreement," said Miroslav Lajčák, president of the U.N. General Assembly and Slovakia's foreign minister. "At a time when multilateralism is being challenged, this is an example of it at work."

Lajčák said the United Nations is uniquely placed to be the forum for negotiating the treaty to protect marine life that 3 billion people rely on for their livelihoods. He called for negotiations that let everyone — nations, scientists, academics, legal experts and other concerned parties — have a voice during the process.

"For a sustainable future, we need healthy oceans. From critical ecosystems like deep sea corals that help to sustain life to plants and animals with medicinal value, we have so many reasons to conserve our marine resources," he said in a statement. "Yet we continue to abuse this precious resource. But we now have the opportunity to protect biodiversity in the high seas through a legally binding treaty."

Pressure on the commons

Environmental advocates want the treaty to include marine protected areas beyond national borders, and to require environmental impact assessments for commercial operations. Those would be used to help decide whether a business might be allowed to operate, but have to minimize or eliminate damage to ocean health.

The High Seas Alliance argued that environmental impact assessments and protected marine reserves in international waters are needed to reverse the loss of marine biodiversity, restore habitat, ensure food security and improve the ocean's resilience against human activity.

It said UNCLOS must be modified to provide these protections in areas beyond the reach of nations.

The U.N.'s Group of 77 — a coalition of 134 developing nations — favors creating a global enforcement mechanism, or body, for marine protected areas, or MPAs. It would have the power to designate and manage these conservation zones amid international waters.

"We need an agreement that bites when necessary," South Africa's delegation wrote. "We need a real tiger, not a paper tiger."

Around 90% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully or overfished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO. Global fish production is approaching its sustainable limit, FAO said, with a 17% increase in production forecast by 2025.

Marine and inland fisheries plus aquaculture provide food, nutrition and a source of income to around 820 million people worldwide. But overfishing has more than tripled since the 1970s, and some 40% of the most popular species like tuna are caught unsustainably.

One of the greatest threats to the sustainability of global fishery resources is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, FAO said. Proponents of the treaty said they anticipate some pushback from big industry players and from major high seas fishing nations like China, Japan, South Korea and Spain.

It is not just overfishing that the treaty's conservation-minded supporters worry about.

The International Seabed Authority said 29 contractors were awarded 15-year contracts to explore for polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabeds within national jurisdictions.

Companies such as German chemical manufacturer BASF have been rushing to register patents for the marine genetic resources of organisms that can withstand extreme conditions involving high pressure, hot and cold temperatures and dim light.

For commercial mining prospectors, these deep sea genomes represent a mysterious trove of untapped potential uses for industry and biomedicine.

The 2014 Nagoya Protocol, which grew out of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity that has been in effect since 1993, only requires that prospectors share these biological resources with researchers or companies in the national jurisdiction where they are found. It does not apply to the high seas.

Patchwork governance

The impetus for the treaty is to improve the world’s governance of the high seas — and to better share and conserve the global commons for fishing, shipping, mining and multitudes of other uses.

Without such a treaty, proponents argue, high seas — which make up two-thirds of the world's oceans — are vulnerable to commercial exploitation. There is only a patchwork of laws that applies to them administered mainly by U.N.-affiliated organizations. Just 1% of high seas is off-limits to industrial uses.

Trying to conserve and sustainably use the world’s oceans, seas and marine resources also is one of the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Coastal and marine resources, the U.N. says, contribute an estimated US$28 trillion a year to the global economy through ecosystem services.

At a two-day high seas conference hosted by French and international organizations in June, Julian Jackson of Pew Charitable Trusts described the current management system as “the U.N. alphabet soup that makes up global governance of the oceans and the high seas.”

Douglas McCauley, who began his career as a fisherman in Los Angeles and is now as an assistant professor of marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said it is urgent to protect the high seas, which also absorb industrial carbon emissions that are overheating the planet.

"We're talking about the largest ecosystem on the planet. The high seas are greater than 60% of our oceans. There's a great amount of biodiversity out there. It's a huge carbon sink for us. It's a huge source of wealth. It's a huge source of nutrition. And, look, when the scientific community looks at the status of the high seas' ecosystem, we see a lot of bad news coming at us," he said, citing declines in species such as Atlantic right whales, bluefin tuna and loggerhead sea turtles.

The seafood and fishing industries have mainly avoided the treaty negotiations. However, Paul Holthus, the founding president and CEO of the World Ocean Council, an international organization representing ocean industries such as shipping, fisheries and oil and gas, said they should all be more involved.

“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 told the industry news website

“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," he said. "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."