The United Nations HQ in New York sits beside a gigantic vacant lot that fronts the Hudson. In the absence of development, nature has established a firm foothold and it resembles a green meadow in the heart of Manhattan. As a metaphor for the high seas, it’s a good one. Within UNHQ right now, historic negotiations to establish a legal instrument to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) – the high seas – are underway. But, despite this unique process, the world at large remains unaware of what the high seas are and why they matter. The time for public support and political ambition on this issue is now.
Unlike plastic pollution, which surrounds us at all times, few of us will see the high seas with our own eyes. Out of sight is out of mind. The term describes those areas that fall outside any exclusive economic zone, the 200-mile limit that surrounds each country and its territories. The high seas are a giant ocean wilderness, a global commons that cover almost half of the surface of the planet. They protect terrestrial life from the impacts of climate change, capturing extra heat and absorbing over a quarter of man-made carbon dioxide. But their remoteness is no longer protection enough. Areas beyond national jurisdiction are threatened by overfishing and habitat loss, pollution, mining and resource exploitation. “The current high seas governance system is weak, fragmented and unfit to address the threats we now face in the 21st century,” Peggy Kalas of the High Seas Alliance explained on day two of the UN negotiations.
In the next two years, running up to 2020, this governance structure will be reformed. Alongside biodiversity conservation measures including marine protected areas, three other key topics will be negotiated: marine genetic resources (MGRs), environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and the transfer of marine technology. This brings to light a hugely complex set of questions, possibilities and vested international interests. For the general public and politicians, this complexity is daunting, even alienating.
Discussion of the high seas and the cluster of issues surrounding them largely takes place in acronyms, impenetrable to the outside world. The key is to remember the reason these negotiations are taking place: 45% of the earth’s surface is a global commons that we all have a stake in protecting and a duty to protect. But we can’t forget that, behind the scenes, the handful of organisations operating on the high seas will be doing their best to carry on, business as usual, in the demi-monde of high legitimacy. Behind the soporific acronyms lie potential practices that can directly affect huge swathes of the planet’s surface and can irreparably damage globally important treasures such as the Lost City.
Getting to the point of a UN treaty negotiation has been anything but simple. A detailed crash course in reaching this point is brilliantly provided by a paper called “The long and winding road – negotiating a high seas treaty.” Further reading includes the Nature article “How to save the high seas,” the Guardian article “The oceans’ last chance,” and a recent BBC story: “UN treaty would protect high seas from over exploitation.”
To cut a very long story short, we are on the first rung of a very tall ladder. If we are to reach the goal of having 30% of the ocean under protection by 2030 (the level at which scientists agree the ocean can sustain itself), large areas of high seas must be protected. To do that, these treaty negotiations must be successful and they must be ambitious. As Richard Branson recently said, this is a chance to create a ‘Paris Agreement for the Oceans.’ For Britain, the opportunity to lead on this issue should not be overlooked.
Britain took a lead role in influencing global climate change policy despite being responsible for only 1% of global emissions. Post-Brexit, the UK will no longer be bound by the duty of sincere cooperation to follow the EU position. We do not have a significant distant water fishing fleet that operates on the high seas and there is no strong domestic business lobby opposed to the BBNJ negotiations.
At this stage, there is everything to play for. The actors, processes and mechanisms that will shape the future remain to be seen. The mission now is to build a universal, legally binding instrument to protect biodiversity on the high seas. Once this is achieved, the first leg of a long road will be run. The goal is to establish ecologically coherent, gigantic marine protected areas on the high seas that are backed by science. This will preserve the diversity and climate functions on which our planet and species depend. There is nothing more important and worthy of our attention than that. One Ocean, One Planet, One Treaty.