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UN sets sail towards better protection of biodiversity in world's largest ecosystem

There is overall consensus that we ought to better protect and sustainably manage our precious living resources. It is the wealth and diversity of life that underpins healthy ecosystems and secures the provision of basic services, such as food and oxygen, upon which we all depend. However, agreeing on how this should be tackled is far from easy. The ocean area beyond national jurisdiction represents almost 50% of the Earth's surface.

Today, human activities on land and at sea are having an increased effect on the open ocean. 60% of the world's major marine ecosystems have been degraded or are being used unsustainably. We are now exploiting fish stocks farther away from the coasts and deeper into the ocean. The ocean absorbs about one third of the carbon dioxide we produce, and this has made the ocean already 30% more acid compared to levels before the industrial revolution, resulting in increased stress to shell-bearing species and coral reefs. In addition, marine litter is now a huge problem, especially for sea birds and marine mammals. Scientists estimate perhaps half of all species will be on the brink of extinction by the end of this Century. We must act now.

Regulating activities that have an impact on biodiversity touches on many actors involved in these activities, such as fishing, mining, drilling, oil and gas exploitation, wind farms, aquaculture, as well as tourism and basic research, including prospection for bio-active compounds. However, there is currently no central database that records all these activities.

In September, the United Nations Working Group to study issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (BBNJ) will request the mandate from the UN General Assembly to prepare the scope, parameters and feasibility of a new instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The UNCLOS sets out the overarching legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and its resources. This translates into many other legal instruments, partnerships and non-binding initiatives, to ocean governance and management, at both global and regional scales. The working group has set a deadline to submit its recommendations at the 69th UN General Assembly.

The requests stems from the conclusions of a BBNJ meeting at UN Headquarters in New York on 19-23 August 2013. During this meeting, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO) together with Tara Expeditions, assembled a panel of experts for a side event on "scientific cooperation and data sharing including capacity building in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction" that concluded with statements that all Member States are responsible and should acquire the capacity for monitoring the state of the environment including its biodiversity, in order to better understand the impact of human activities, as well as to measure and evaluate the effects of new potential regulations under UNCLOS.  

The panel of experts presented important international scientific programs on marine biodiversity, such as IOC/UNESCO's Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), the International Network for Scientific Investigation of the Deep Sea (INDEEP), the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) and Tara Ocean. Tara Expedition and INDEEP are two interesting examples where huge collections of samples are taken from the open ocean and deep sea, to enhance our knowledge on the least explored parts of the ocean. For the benefit of human kind, all data are now stored and made available in global open-access information systems such as OBIS. The panel experts stressed the need for the BBNJ process to also involve scientists as one community of key stakeholders.

One of the most difficult tasks in preparing for a new legal instrument to address these issues will be to agree on what tools and mechanisms are needed; how they should be implemented and by whom; and who should control and monitor the activities in the open ocean. Some countries argue we must respect the freedom of the seas.

Other countries, mostly G77/China and the EU, consider the resources in the open ocean as the common heritage of mankind, which means that they belong to everyone, that we are all responsible for taking proper care and managing the resources in a sustainable way, including sharing among all nations the benefits from exploitation, as well as from research. Building the capacity, the knowledge, the skills and technology to manage the ocean sustainably will likely be one of the priorities.

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