Governments take very cautious steps toward a UN Treaty governing the High Seas

The Environmental News Service reports, 27th January 2015: “Government representatives from around the world agreed 24th January 2015 to develop the first legally-binding agreement to conserve marine life in the high seas and international seabed, an area covering roughly half the planet.

Riftia tubeworms with anemones and mussels colonizing a low-temperature hydrothermal vent field, Galapagos Rift, Pacific Ocean

Riftia tubeworms with anemones and mussels colonizing a low-temperature hydrothermal vent field, Galapagos Rift, Pacific Ocean
Photo courtesy NOAA Ocean Explorer

After four days of intense deliberations at UN Headquarters in New York, delegates reached consensus to begin negotiating a UN treaty that addresses the protection of marine life in areas beyond national jurisdiction — the global ocean commons.

Delegates leaving the UN in the midst of a blizzard that hit New York early Saturday morning were excited about reaching consensus on starting negotiations towards a new legally-binding instrument.

The ninth meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group on Biological Diversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction [BBNJ] was attended by some 200 participants, including national delegations, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations. The meeting was the last of three convened by the UN General Assembly over the past nine months to discuss the scope, parameters and feasibility of a possible new international instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversitybiodiversity Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals. in areas beyond national jurisdiction, BBNJ, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOSUNCLOS The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty..

The meeting produced recommendations for a decision to be taken during the current session of the UN General Assembly on the development of a new treaty under UNCLOS, as mandated by the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, informally called Rio+20.

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is attracting increased international attention. Areas around seamountsseamount A mountain rising from the ocean sea floor that does not reach to the water's surface. They are an important habitat for fish, corals and shellfish., hydrothermal vents and cold-water coral reefs are rich in biodiversity but vulnerable to damage by human activities such as fishing and bio-prospecting.

Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

The fishing vessel Yin Yuan is transferred from the custody of the U.S. Coast Guard to the China Coast Guard in the North Pacific Ocean 3rd June, 2014. Suspected violations include use of prohibited high seas drift net and fishing without a licence.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

At the meeting 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.

As an assurance to high seas fishing states, it was agreed that any new treaty would not undermine existing agreements or the work of relevant international bodies.

The outcome of the meeting must now be adopted by the UN General Assembly by September 2015, during the current session.

A formal preparatory committee will start work in early 2016 to develop the elements of a draft treaty. Though no end date to the negotiations was agreed, the UN General Assembly is to make a decision by September 2018 on the convening of an intergovernmental conference, under the auspices of the United Nations, to finalize and adopt the text of a treaty.
undersea vents

Three spires expelling mineral-rich smoke into the Pacific Ocean in the Black Forest vent field, Mariana Arc

Three spires expelling mineral-rich smoke into the Pacific Ocean in the Black Forest vent field, Mariana Arc. (Photo courtesy NOAA Ocean Explorer)

As reported by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the U.S. delegation pointed out that difficult questions remain unanswered: could a fish be considered a marine genetic resource? Who in the very long chain from basic research to product sales would be required to share benefits: the end user, the state of the end user, the seller, the state of the seller? And to whom would any benefits go and on what basis would they be distributed?

Lisa Speer of the Natural Resource Defence Council is hopeful that these and many other outstanding issues can be resolved, saying, “Many States have shown great efforts to protect the half of the planet that is the high seas. We know that these States will continue to champion the urgent need for more protection in the process before us.”

Aurélie Spadone with IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme said, “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 co-operation is the only way forward.”

Source: Environmental News Sevice, 27th January 2015. For the full text, see


Marinet observes: Progress in the UN on a new implementing agreement relating to the Highs Seas and The UN Law of the Sea is good news. However, a reading of the discussions and what was actually agreed, see Earth Negotiations Bulletin report, puts a more sobering complexion on matters. The reality is that world governments are still a very long way from seeing protection of the world’s marine resources as the default position, and are still focused first and foremost on their exploitation to their own national and commercial advantage.

Marinet takes a different, some would argue more radical, and we would argue a more common sense view of these matters. These are stated, and set out clearly and simply in Conserving The Great Blue which argues that the rapid deterioration of the world’s seas calls for a breakthrough in our reasoning and a fundamental change in our behaviour.

Deborah Wright, author of Conserving The Great Blue, says: “The way in which humankind despoils our watery world is depressing indeed. And even more depressing is the failure of governments to react. Those who we elect, who we empower and we pay for, are failing us and they are failing the natural world. They are allowing the cruel and unnecessary slaughter of millions of sea creatures and the ruin of undersea habitats. Some governments are making the problem even worse by subsidizing unviable and damaging commercial fishing.

“Now let’s imagine a different scenario. Let’s imagine that we take the dominant paradigm of over-exploitation and turn it completely around. We re-shape our thinking and begin with a very different perception of the natural world. Our respect for the sea and its wildlife becomes the norm, not the exception.

“The concept is simple. It is logical. It is achievable. The legal framework for it is already largely in place. And as with many of society’s steps forward, it is essentially about ending what is wrong and replacing it with what is right.

“We invite you to help bring this proposal to fruition. The first step is to create a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) specifically for oceans. Take The TerraMar Project’s Ocean Pledge to send a message to the UN urging them to properly protect the seas and oceans.

Marinet is now developing a political campaign aimed at securing this new reality for our oceans described in Conserving The Great Blue. This campaign will focus on reform of UN Law of the Sea via action by the Member Nations of the UN General Assembly. To learn more about this campaign and Marinet’s work, visit us here.

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