For most of us who live in heavily settled urban areas where laws govern many of our activities, it might be surprising to learn that nearly half of our planet remains unclaimed and ungoverned by any nations. Where is this half of the planet that is essentially free from any real rules or protections? It is the vast area of the ocean that lies beyond national boundaries, or the “high seas.” The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides for a patch-work of groups and agreements which oversee some activity in these areas, but they do not work in concert with each other to allow meaningful conservation for our oceans. The challenge of how to protect our “high seas” is a vexing and difficult problem.
Encouragingly, a crucial step towards protecting this massive area of ocean was taken last week. At United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York, a committee of more than 200 delegates from around the world agreed to the terms and parameters necessary to begin meaningful discussions on how to cooperatively protect our global ocean commons. The proposed treaty would be the first legally-binding agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas (formally called “areas beyond national jurisdiction”). Pending the adoption of the committee’s recommendations in September 2015, treaty negotiations are set to begin in early 2016. Although there is no set end-date for the negotiations, the UN General Assembly has until September 2018 to decide whether or not to convene an intergovernmental conference to finalize and adopt the treaty.
Just getting to this step took a lot of hard work by the many dedicated partners of the High Seas Alliance. As a member of the Alliance, Marine Conservation Institute is excited by this important step forward. This is the first time the international community has decided to work together to create a legally binding agreement to conserve and sustainably use these unique and remote ocean habitats. Mandated as part of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), this new treaty will help to create a network of global marine protected areas, as well as ensure sustainable fishing practices and environmental assessment of shipping and mining activities.
There is much work to be done but this one small step will lead us to very large benefits for the oceans that are so important to us all.