[High seas] Protecting and sharing genetic resources of the high seas

© Creative Commons / Pxhere

The Intergovernmental Conference on Biodiversity Management in the High Seas opens Monday, September 3, 2018 in New York with the objective of defining a binding international treaty to manage biological resources in the high seas. This is a highly anticipated moment for defenders of the ocean and for the Tara Foundation, committed to this theme since 2012. André Abreu, International Policy Director of the Tara Foundation, answers some questions about the importance of these negotiations, what exactly is at stake, and expected impacts for the scientific community.

How are these first negotiations taking place? What are the major issues?

After 6 years of preliminary negotiations, last December the United Nations finally approved the organization of this conference. The first thing to remember is the binding aspect of the upcoming treaty. That is to say, it will have the force of law because it will come from international legislation, under the aegis of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. It will not be merely recommendations. As a result, we expect many difficulties concerning the most difficult and complex issues, such as the management of fishing on the high seas, or the definition of what will be considered as marine genetic resources.

Tara’s position on the high seas: What are you defending in New York for the next 2 years?

Unlike most NGOs present in these negotiations, often engaged on the issues of Marine Protected Areas and fisheries, the Tara Foundation has been working for 6 years on subjects related to scientific research in the high seas and its development. We want to define a framework for research in the high seas, but also and especially to supervise the sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources. Today, many pharmaceutical companies are interested in discovering the DNA of new plankton species and finding unknown biological functions that could advance medical research. Imagine, 90% of marine species are still to be discovered! They contain treasures of information about life, the adaptation and evolution of living organisms: biological mysteries to explore and share! The Tara Foundation is defending a position balanced between freedom of collection, freedom of research and discovery, and access for everyone to resources, in solidarity with developing countries.
Traine du filet à plancton
© Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expeditions Foundation


Why are marine genetic resources so much in need of a legal instrument?

In recent years, we have been experiencing a technological revolution in research on marine biodiversity. Today, scientific infrastructures and disciplines are evolving and ocean observation capabilities are expanding in a new way, with satellite monitoring, genomic sequencing, digital imaging, and the use of artificial intelligence. This rapid evolution requires a legal framework and the implementation of sampling rules, databases, information sharing. For Tara, the definition of a principle of common good, with the obligation to share data in free access with the scientific community, is a priority.

What are your hopes for these first discussions regarding research on the high seas?

After so much time spent in preliminary discussions, with no real focus on concrete objectives, our present ambitions are enormous concerning 4 main axes of the negotiation: it is necessary to
(1) Define a stable and open framework for the definition of MPAs on high seas
(2) Approve the need for independent environmental impact studies on human activities
(3) Define rules for access and sharing of marine genetic resources
(4) Channel real funding to strengthen the research and innovation capacities of developing countries.


Autour du bateau à l'arrêt, les oiseaux de mer accompagnent les scientifiques lors de la station.

© Yann Chavance / Fondation Tara Expéditions


At present the Tara Foundation is in discussion with the giant GOOGLE for a partnership in terms of research, as evoked at the Salon Vivatech 2018. How can a giant like Google meet the expectations of the Tara Foundation? Can it respect the philosophical principles represented by Tara?

Today, further research requires considerable computation and cross-referencing of the data coming from Tara expeditions. Few countries are able to develop what Google has today: digital and especially algorithmic power without equal. They also have an incredible capacity for diffusion of information. And we must not forget that since Google’s launch, with Chrome, Google Earth and others, they have always defended open access to data. For example, Google’s data and algorithms are used today for the “Global Fishing Watch” platform which allows everyone to see in real time the movement of fishing boats around the world. Our partnership is a work in progress, nothing is definitive, but we will need a digital revolution to understand as quickly as possible the evolution of the global ocean on which the equilibrium of our planet depends.

Learn more and read further discussions on biodiversity in the high seas by clicking here.

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