January 24, 2015

Things are looking up for the high seas after last week’s deliberations at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President of the United Nations General Assembly Sam Kahamba Kutesa convened a meeting with States Members of the United Nations, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations and parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for four days of negotiations concerning the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The meeting concluded early Saturday morning with a formal recommendation for the UN General Assembly to develop a legally binding agreement to protect ocean life in the high seas.

The high seas make up approximately 64% of the global ocean (nearly half of Earth’s surface) – a huge patchwork of regions lying outside of any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Every coastal nation in the world has an EEZ extending 200 nautical miles from shore. Ocean expanses within EEZs are eligible for protection as marine protected areas, but in the high seas outside of those invisible boundaries, the ocean is about as lawless as the Wild West. Less than 1% of the entire global ocean, which covers over 70% of Earth’s surface, is fully protected – an amount that is utterly inadequate given how much food, oxygen and carbon sequestration the high seas provide. All of that could soon change with this first major push to create a legal framework for conserving life in the high seas, which support some of the most environmentally significant and threatened ecosystems on the planet.

Mission Blue founder Dr. Sylvia Earle addressed the United Nations on Tuesday afternoon, urging the body to take action and implement an agreement that would bring law and order to the high seas. She began:

Sylvie Earle (right) with Mission Blue's Charlotte Vick (left) and Sofia Tsenikli, Senior Policy Advisor Oceans at Greenpeace International

Sylvie Earle (right) with Mission Blue’s Charlotte Vick (left) and Sofia Tsenikli, Senior Policy Advisor Oceans at Greenpeace International

“Thank you, Co-Chairs, for the privilege of speaking officially on behalf of Mission Blue, and unofficially, for those who cannot speak for themselves – the children of today and for all of those in the future – our descendants who will, from their place in the future, either applaud or condemn our actions – or lack of actions – concerning establishing governance – a strong and meaningful implementing agreement under UNCLOS for biodiversity of half the world, the high seas – the ocean beyond national jurisdiction.”

Dr Earle continued:

The status quo is not adequate and is not acceptable. It is high time for the High Seas, the blue half of the world, to be recognized as the blue heart of the planet, the cornerstone of Earth’s life support system, the vast but vulnerable part of the planet that until recent decades has not only been beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, but also beyond the reach of the ability of humans to effectively exploit it for short term gain.”

Mounting threats from human activities including climate change, overfishing, deep-sea mining and pollution make this international agreement to protect the high seas more important than ever. Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe recognize this critical moment and have signed petitions calling for UN action to protect the high seas, including this one from Mission Blue.

Deliberations continued through the night into early Saturday morning. Photo by IISD/ENB

Deliberations continued through the night into early Saturday morning. Photo by IISD/ENB

The formal outcome of the BBNJ meetings last week now must be adopted by the UN General Assembly by September 2015 in order to move forward with negotiations for a legally binding agreement under UNCLOS in the next decade. Mission Blue will continue to work with our partners at the High Seas Alliance and other non-governmental organizations pushing for protection as this process continues. You can show your support by signing our petition.

Petition banner - high seas

“The ocean is large and resilient, but it is not too big to fail. What we are taking out of the sea, what we are putting into the sea are actions that are undermining the most important thing the ocean delivers to humankind – our very existence.” – Dr. Sylvia Earle

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By Courtney Mattison

Featured image (top): Photo by IISD/ENB

One Comment

  • John Stansfield says:

    Excellent – but too slow!! The possibility of ‘binding legal agreements’ from the U.N. ‘in the next decade’ is really not much to celebrate. Those agreements need to be NOW. When such agreements are set for a future time, the destroyers simply speed up their activities to get as much profit as they can before the window closes.

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