The High Seas, what are the stakes?

© François Aurat / Tara Expeditions Foundation

Because they constitute more than 45% of our planet, the High Seas — the maritime space located beyond the zones under national jurisdictions — have become more than ever the object of greed. Negotiations opening in early September 2018 in New York will be long and arduous. As a first step, a coalition of NGOs brought together scientific experts, diplomats and lawyers on June 21st in Paris at an international conference open to the public, to discuss the issues of negotiation which would make it possible to define an international instrument for sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the High Seas.

Navigation, freight transport, migration, exploration, cables and telecommunications, the High Seas are an area of conquest and growing stakes. Today, 90% of our consumer goods pass through it. For decades ships have dumped waste from industrial society, until this practice was banned in the early 1990s.
In the last few decades, we have been fishing in the High Seas. Until the 1950s most fish stocks were still in fairly good condition. But the situation has deteriorated. According to the FAO — the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization — 80% of fish stocks have been fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. Fishing is gradually being regulated.

The mineral resources of the seabed on the High Seas are legally part of the common heritage of humanity, and their exploration and exploitation are regulated. Exploration licenses have been granted to several consortia and if exploitation were to start, profits should theoretically be distributed equitably.
Unlike mineral resources, living resources in the High Seas are not considered part of the common heritage of mankind by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As for the rights to marine genetic resources, they are a subject to debate. Some genes coming from deep sea organisms are potential treasures for medicine and biotechnology, and therefore for the future of human health. But neither their exploitation nor even their existence had been envisaged by the UN Convention established in the 1970s and 1980s.


Requins marteaux à Malpelo
François Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions

After more than a decade of informal talks on the status of biodiversity in the High Seas, UN members will finally begin formal negotiations. In the negotiating package defined in 2011 are included: rules for the designation and management of marine protected areas in the High Seas; sharing of information, a mechanism to conduct environmental impact studies in the High Seas and elsewhere on the planet, recognizing the importance of High Seas ecosystem services, including the absorption of nearly 500 million tonnes of CO2, a natural asset in the fight against climate change.

The High Seas are often described as a lawless zone, but this is an exaggeration. Some High Seas activities such as shipping or fishing are in fact regulated at the international level, though implementation remains difficult. Indeed, the problem of governance in the High Seas is due to a mixture of gaps and fragmentation, both in geographic and sectoral terms. It is precisely these shortcomings that the United Nations proposes to fill with a new amendment to the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Convention on the Law of the Sea is often described as the “Constitution of the World Ocean”, but it was adopted way back in 1982 — 36 years ago — when the political, social, economic and environmental context of the High Seas was very different from today. Concepts such as biodiversity, sustainable development and the ecosystem approach were in their infancy, not to mention our understanding of climate change.
The negotiation starting in June is therefore a major challenge: to anchor the Convention of the Law of the Sea in the heart of 21st century issues.

André Abreu,
director of international ocean relations,
Tara Expeditions Foundation

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