More science and capacity are needed to conserve marine biodiversity in the high seas

The United Nations, including representatives of specialized bodies such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, and civil society have started the negotiations of a new legally-binding instrument to conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), also known as the high seas.

Nearly 50% of the Earth’s surface is covered by marine areas outside national borders, beyond the limits of countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones. Access to the wealth of marine living resources occurring in these regions is currently under no control by states or competent bodies, creating the classic “tragedy of the commons” effect where short-term benefits are enjoyed by a few individual states and impacts are shared by all. The Rio+20 The Future We Want outcome document had already urged States to overcome this legal gap and take measures to implement the provisions under the Law of the Sea Convention in order to ensure that the benefits derived from the high seas’ biodiversity are shared with all and guaranteed for future generations.

The new instrument will address environmental impact assessments and area-based management tools, including the establishment of marine protected areas. It will also provide a governance mechanism that regulates access to and shares the benefits derived from marine genetic resources. Capacity development and transfer of marine technology are considered absolutely necessary to make this instrument universal, serving all its future Parties and particularly developing countries.

The first meeting (28 March – 8 April 2016) of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) was conducted in a spirit of transparency and willingness to reach consensus on a new Treaty. While countries are a long way from an agreement on the scope of the Treaty, there was a strong plea for building on and not undermining existing instruments and bodies and applying a pragmatic approach to benefit-sharing, with many delegations highlighting the importance of science and further investments in R&D and international scientific collaboration to improve the generation and sharing of knowledge. The best-available scientific information should form the basis of management decisions and conservation policies. It also recognized the need for a fund and the establishment of a global network of training centres to ensure capacity is built globally.

The majority of States referred to the IOC Criteria and Guidelines for the Transfer of Marine Technology as a guiding principle – recognizing that marine technology includes more than physical infrastructure –, but also access to data and information, manuals, guides, standards and best practices. Several States pointed to the mandate of the IOC of UNESCO as a clearing house for transfer of marine technology, mentioning IOC’s work in training and capacity building, as well as the Ocean Biogeographic Information System as an effective global platform involving a network of national authorities for the sharing of research data and information.

Many items currently under discussion in the PrepCom touch on several areas of competency of the IOC. At this early stage, it is difficult to discuss the institutional mechanism, whether a new ad-hoc coordination body is needed and if the mandate of one or several existing organizations should be expanded. The IOC is closely following the BBNJ process and the 49th session of the IOC Executive Council (June 2016) will consider IOC’s contribution to a new potential agreement. A side event demonstrating relevant activities of the IOC is planned for the second PrepCom meeting in August 2016.

By the end of 2017, the PrepCom will deliver its recommendations, including the elements on which there is no consensus, if any, to the United Nations General Assembly, which will then take the decision to convene an intergovernmental conference in 2018.

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