Looking for a Convention for the High Seas

Farah Mustafa

Marine and coastal biodiversity affect the livelihoods of more than three billion people. However, the UN reports that 40 percent of worldwide marine life is affected by human activities. While the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) set some regulations for the economic zones and high seas, UNCLOS does not regulate many behaviors undertaken by states and corporations. This has had serious implications for the livelihoods of those dependent on the ocean waters. After decades of ocean life deterioration, political leaders and select NGOs are spearheading efforts to reverse the negative impact of human activities and to maintain, if not improve, the biodiversity of marine life in the oceans. Recent efforts seek to transcend existing regulations by reaching ocean areas that have historically not been covered by existing legislation and international law, such as to undo some of the damage. The Washington Stimson Center refers these large unregulated ocean areas as the “World’s Largest Crime Scene.”

A number of initiatives have sought to improve ocean life and regulate the high seas. Among these is the UN’s September 2015 announcement of the UN Sustainable Development Summit’s ocean protection Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). In addition, a legally-binding agreement under the UNCLOS is likely to be discussed over the 2016/2017 UN session to protect marine biodiversity. And, ocean sustainability was included in the COP21 Paris Agreement. Lastly, United States’ Secretary of State John Kerry is convening a third meeting of what has become an annual “Our Ocean” conference. This year’s meeting is titled “Our Ocean, One Future.” While all of these efforts are substantial and potentially impactful, they are still early efforts.

Biodiversity and Marine Life

Earlier in his political career, then Senator John Kerry undertook efforts to stop drift net fishing. Since becoming Secretary of State, however, Kerry launched the pivotal Our Oceans conference in 2014. Since its inception, government leaders and NGOs have pledged over USD 4 billion to protect six million square kilometers of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Currently, only two percent of the world’s oceans are protected. The goal of this conference, in conjunction with other conservation initiatives, is to protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020 – a number that is half of the conference’s initial goal of 20 percent protection. The Stimson Center in Washington has produced a series of policy recommendations for the 2016 conference, suggesting improvements in surveillance of international waters, collaboration between developed and developing nations and better regulation of biodiversity. The authors of this Report are optimistic that the conference will contribute towards the overall progress in protecting marine biodiversity initiatives worldwide. However, they note the severity of the situation in the high seas – illegal fishing, for instance represents annual losses of USD 23 billion and 20 percent of all worldwide fishing. The authors believe that action on this matter is a pressing need.

Climate Change and Oceans

In a (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) UNESCO message from Director-General Irina Bokova on the 2016 World Oceans Day, the Director General drew attention to attention to the relationship of oceans and climate change and the need for mobilization to protect oceans. UNESCO first created its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in 1960, which works on marine research and protection. UNESCO and the IOC have used World Oceans Day since 1992 to call for action and to increase awareness about the oceanic matters including the protection of biodiversity, the regulation of harvesting and the increase of economic benefits to small island developing states. UNESCO recognizes and advocates for more ocean initiatives.

The Brookings Institution on the recent World Oceans Day released an article indicating the increase in ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide pollution. This pollution has an impact on fisheries, food chains, and local economies. The COP21 Paris Agreement indicated the need for better regulation of greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs that affect marine life. The authors note that it is a significant result for oceans to have been mentioned in the Agreement. It was the first occasion where the oceans received such attention. Oceans are, for the first time, being recognized by the UN as important in the realm of climate change.

A new legally-binding international agreement set to be raised this fall under UNCLOS also takes this under consideration. A follow-up on the agreement is set for the end of 2017. The biodiversity initiative would supplement the fight to end global poverty, as the agreement would result in the establishment of a voluntary trust fund to assist development countries with their participation in marine conversations. The initiative would also tackle the issue of climate change. The next two years will be very important in determining where global governance will take ocean regulations and how this will ultimately affect the way oceans are regarded as a contributor to life for humans and marine life alike.


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