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High Stakes for the High Seas

The High Seas cover half of our planet and contain vast, largely untapped living and non-living resources such as protein, biogenetic material, oil and gas. Appealing to all and belonging to none, they are inadequately regulated by a patchwork of laws that lag behind rapidly evolving technologies. By bringing together the industrial and scientific community, civil society and institutions to share their experience and vision, the conference “The High Seas, Our Future!” initiated a debate to mobilize decision makers and all stakeholders towards a sustainable management of our ocean as a whole.

In his message to the participants, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon spoke of the need for concrete and timely action at the national, regional and international level involving all stakeholders, towards the common goal of “Healthy Oceans for Prosperity”. 

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova stressed the need for further scientific research. The High Seas and their biodiversity have great potential value and provide essential services, including half of our oxygen and climate regulation. Yet their importance is not matched by our knowledge, and they are generally not well understood. Rapid technological advances are creating new economic opportunities by putting within our reach resources that lie outside of the national jurisdiction of nations, but also increasing risks to areas that historically were not under threat.

We must invest in science urgently, and improve our knowledge of the Ocean”, said Irina Bokova. “Establish models to evaluate impacts on marine ecosystems and fishing economies. Identify thresholds beyond which ecosystems cannot recover.” There was a consensus among participants regarding the need to increase funding for fundamental research, to better understand the ocean and inform governance. In this regards UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC) plays a key role, by promoting international cooperation and coordinating programmes in marine research, observation systems and capacity development.

Strengthening capacities for a shared governance
No one can tackle the challenges facing our ocean alone. In light of our ocean’s interconnectedness, we are only as strong as our weakest link: data and technology transfer are essential components of ocean governance. “Most countries do not possess the technology needed to explore the deep sea”, reminded Irina Bokova. “Only a few research institutes do. Hence strengthening capacity in developing countries and technology transfer are priorities, to ensure the protection as well as the equitable and sustainable use of resources.”

Strengthening governance to protect people and the ocean
Inadequate governance is likely to affect the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources. Last June, the international community recognized the need “to address, on an urgent basis, the issue of the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction” in the Rio+20 Outcome Document (The Future We Want, §162) and the development of an international instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is on the agenda for the next session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Julian Barbière of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission gave an overview of the current context of fragmented governance, initiated at a time when marine ecosystem services and functions were largely unknown. Some sectors are partially regulated through a flurry of UN programmes and agencies, with no system in place to balance demands. The surface, water column and seabed are addressed separately, preventing an integrated approach. The UN Secretary General launched the Oceans Compact to address these obstacles, federate international efforts to improve ocean governance and provide a strategic vision for the UN to deliver more coherently and effectively on its ocean mandate.

Representatives of the private and public spheres observed that existing instruments were implemented unequally across the world. They recognized the need for an international framework to manage this shared Global Commons sustainably, with mechanisms to facilitate its enforcement. The Oceans Compact provides a platform for collaboration between all stakeholders in this effort, including Member States, institutions, civil society, the research community and the private sector.

Paris Appeal for the High Seas
Testimonies from experts and special guests punctuated the conference, fostering a lively debate. Noting the importance of France’s commitment, as it possesses the second-largest exclusive economic zone in the world, several participants hoped that similar events could be organized in various countries to keep the dialogue going.

The conference concluded with the Paris Appeal for the High Seas, and an invitation for the general public to sign this call, which will be presented to relevant institutions, including the General Assembly of the United Nations, in an appeal for a “shared, transparent, democratic, international governance”.

The event was organized by the Economic, Social & Environmental Council (CESE, France) and Tara Expéditions under the patronage of UNESCO, following a proposal by navigator Catherine Chabaud, with contibutions by Tara Expéditions, the Institut océanographique Paul Ricard, the Fondation Albert II, Nausicaa, the Cluster Maritime Français, Armateurs de France and the Institut Français de la mer.

Participants included Jean-Paul Delevoye, President of the CESE, Delphine Batho, French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, and Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, François Gabart, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Patricia Ricard, to name a few.

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