Protect the neglected half of our blue planet

In late 2017, 14 million UK viewers attended the acclaimed second series of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, making it the most-watched television show of the year. It brought the wonders of the ocean into people’s living rooms and captured the public’s imagination like never before.

Now is the time to capitalize on this enthusiasm, and advocate for strong, legally binding protections for the high seas – the roughly two-thirds of our planet’s oceans that are beyond the control of a single state (see ‘Negrated Waters’ ).

A start has been made. A landmark resolution was adopted at the United Nations General Assembly on 24 December 2017, marking the start of formal diplomatic negotiations for an international treaty to conserve and sustainably use the high seas.

Co-sponsored by more than 130 countries, Resolution 72/249 is the result of more than a decade of scientific debates, legal disputes and political wrangling1. The decision paves the way for a number of measures, including a much-needed system of global marine protected areas (MPAs) to sustain aquatic life in the rapidly changing ocean.

Now we must make sure that there is real progress in the next few years. The treaty, expected to be in place sometime after 2020, will need to include provisions for firmer international oversight and direction if there is any chance of overcoming the problems with the current regulatory framework. Like any such talks, there is a risk that they will result in a toothless call for ‘urgent’ action and increased cooperation.

NGOs and environmental groups will continue to emphasize strong conservation measures, including strictly protected reserves.

The research community can contribute by accelerating the collection of baseline data to characterize existing environments and biodiversity; Coordinating observation efforts across disciplines; Marine health monitoring and assessment; and further study how MPA and other conservation tools work on the high seas.

In fact, ocean science may be a unifying focus for this new agreement. Social scientists, legal scholars and other experts can feed the conversation with practical alternatives.

Together, we must advocate for a stronger international treaty if critical high-marine ecosystems are to survive and thrive.

Patchy security

Governments have repeatedly made high-level political commitments to protect marine biodiversity. The Aichi Biodiversity Goal and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal, for example, call for the protection of 10% of the world’s ocean (although some scientists argue that at least 30% is necessary).

This is to preserve wild places, sustain fisheries, protect climate-controlling ecosystems, and preserve a wealth of biodiversity. Governments have still been slow to act. Currently only 4% of the ocean is protected, and hardly any MPA covers the high seas.

Maritime areas beyond national jurisdiction are governed by a patchwork of various agreements and institutions, each with its own peculiarities and disadvantages. Most of these organizations focus on the management of a particular resource or activity.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) oversees seabed mining. Regional fish-management organizations regulate high-sea fisheries. And the International Maritime Organization sets shipping rules.

There are few channels of communication between these agencies, with little formal cooperation or coherence between their management measures. Their decisions are highly politicized, and the need to reach consensus among member states can overwhelm scientific evidence.

Some regional initiatives have made limited progress. The OSPAR Commission, named after its parent conventions in Oslo and Paris, is composed of 15 countries and the European Union. It has designated ten MPa in the high seas of the Northeast Atlantic. However, these only apply to its member states, and OSPAR does not have the authority to regulate many activities or ensure that conservation is part of fisheries decisions.

In 2017, ISA approved a 15-year exploration contract with Poland covering part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Within this OSPAR field is the Lost City Hydrothermal Field, a unique series of 60 m tall calcium carbonate chimneys.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have highlighted that the site can meet the criteria for World Heritage status.

The ISA did not consult UNESCO, IUCN or OSPAR, which left no avenue for input to the scientists studying the facility other than to write a letter of concern after the contract was approved.

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