Thursday, 29 January 2015

Progress towards a legally-binding treaty to safeguard the ocean beyond national boundaries

States took a major step toward urgently needed ocean protection at the UN the 24 January 2015 agreeing to develop a legally binding agreement to conserve marine life in the high seas

After four days of deliberations States reached consensus to begin negotiating the first UN treaty that specifically addresses the protection of marine life in an area covering half the planet – those ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Progress came despite pressure from a small group of governments that questioned the need for a new legal framework. That minority blocked agreement on a faster timeline reflecting the clear scientific imperative for action, but all countries agreed on the need to act.

“A legally-binding treaty for our global ocean commons is essential to build a healthy, resilient and productive ocean for the benefit of us all, future generations included. Indeed, for the two thirds of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction, international cooperation is the only way forward,” says AurĂ©lie Spadone, Programme Officer with IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme.

A formal preparatory committee will start work in early 2016 to craft the elements of a draft treaty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Though no end date to the negotiations could be agreed, the General Assembly is to take a decision by September 2018 on the convening of an intergovernmental conference, under the auspices of the United Nations, to finalise and adopt the text.Mission Blue’s Dr Sylvia Earle said “Armed with new knowledge, we are taking our first steps to safeguard the high seas and keep the world safe for our children.”

“Though the final results remain uncertain, many have high hopes for the new treaty,” says Kristina M. Gjerde, IUCN Senior High Seas Advisor. “It could help secure the designation of a truly global system of marine protected areas, mainstream biodiversity conservation into the governance of high seas fisheries, shipping and seabed mining, and provide for more effective access to marine genetic resources. The treaty could also also foster important new scientific and commercial discoveries while ensuring the benefits are shared by all.”

For over a decade, IUCN has been fostering the scientific knowledge and legal analysis to understand how we can better manage the vast marine realm beyond national boundaries. It has organised seminars for government representatives and growing networks of experts, and, together with its many partners, will continue to contribute towards an effective and equitable international agreement.

The High Seas Alliance will continue to press for a strong resolution by the UN General assembly for a new agreement under UNCLOS that will ensure a healthy global ocean for the long-term.

High Seas

The high seas is the ocean beyond any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) - amounting to 64% of the ocean - and the ocean seabed that lies beyond the continental shelf of any country. These areas make up nearly 50% of the surface of the Earth and include some of the most environmentally important, critically threatened and least protected ecosystems on the planet. Only an international High Seas Biodiversity Agreement would address the inadequate, highly fragmented and poorly implemented legal and institutional framework that is currently failing to protect the high seas – and therefore the entire global ocean – from the multiple threats they face in the 21st century.

Ocean Governance: a brief background

The high seas are open to all states, whether coastal or land-locked. Freedom of the high seas, and particularly the governance of high seas fishing, is exercised under the conditions laid down in 'Part VII: High Seas' of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in 1994, and in the 1995 Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks And Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (known as the UN Fish Stocks Agreement), which entered into force in 2001.

The FAO Code of Conduct on Responsible Fisheries integrates the requirements of UNCLOS and the Fish Stocks Agreement, as well as bridging them with the wider requirements of the UN Convention on Environment and Development (UNCED).

High seas resources are currently primarily managed by regional fishery organizations (RFOs) charged with organizing international cooperation around a number of tasks, including: the collection of fishery statistics; the assessment of the state of resources; the imparting of scientific advice; management decisions; and monitoring. The implementation and enforcement of measures is, however, usually the prerogative of the Flag State, and the relative effectiveness of RFOs varies from region to region, and task to task.

High Seas Alliance

The High Seas Alliance is a partnership of organizations and groups aimed at building a strong common voice and constituency for the conservation of the high seas. The Alliance is currently made up of 27 NGOs plus the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The objective of the Alliance is to facilitate international cooperation to establish high seas protected areas and to strengthen high seas governance.

For further information, please contact:

Kristina M. Gjerde, IUCN Senior High Seas Advisor, or
Aurelie Spadone, IUCN Programme Officer, Global Marine and Polar Programme