“ The sea, the great unifier, is man´s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.”
Jacques Yves Cousteau
Since 2009, the United Nations General Assembly decided that June 8 would be designated as the “World Oceans Day”.
The marine environment constitutes over 70% of the volume of Earth’s biosphere, being the keystone of our planet. While itself is priceless, its ecosystem services are increasingly being recognized with relevant socioeconomic value. Nevertheless, many would think in a mistaken way that the ocean is so vast and remote that it can withstand any kind of pressure and that its wellbeing does not affect us.
World Oceans Day gives us an opportunity to point out the importance of different topics that must be acknowledged by the international community, being the governance of the high seas a critical subject.
About two thirds of the ocean environment is in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). However, there is a lack of a comprehensive and integral governance model to address conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity on these areas.
Nowadays, a fragmented and riddled with loopholes scheme, and a sectoral management approach is the “normal prescription” for the high seas, where there is an absence of an effective mandate for coordination between the numerous Agencies, Organizations and Treaties. In synthesis, the current legal regime on the high seas is insufficient, leaving nearly half the surface of the planet beyond the reach of a global regulation.
Meanwhile, increasing pressure from threats such as overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification, undermines the highly productive areas on the high seas, which supports large pelagic fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and vital ecosystems for multiple species, and threaten the connectivity between coastal ecosystems and the high seas.
In this regard, new challenges have developed and governance schemes are increasingly necessary for the ABNJ. Currently, there is an urgent need for the establishment of appropriate management structures and procedures that will enable States, and the relevant regional and international bodies, to develop and enforce effective measures on these rich and vulnerable oceanic areas.
A process has been evolving for a decade at the United Nations, where the General Assembly established the ‘UN ad hoc open-ended informal Working Group to study issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction’ (the BBNJ Working Group); with the objective to address legal gaps in the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity on the high seas, including through the possible development of a multilateral agreement under UNCLOS.
The following milestone was achieved at the Rio+20 Summit, where a majority of States were in favor of the development of an international instrument under UNCLOS, aimed specifically at high seas biodiversity protection; and a commitment to decide the beginning of a negotiation of a new Implementing Agreement must be fulfilled before the end of the 69th session of the General Assembly (September 2015).
Further on, the working group agreed that the scope of the new Implementing Agreement would address marine genetic resources, including the distribution of benefits, area-based management tools, including marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, the capacity building and transfer of marine technology, together as a single package.
At this time, the process continues at the U.N, and hopefully the States will agree to start the negotiation of this critical Agreement to secure the conservation and sustainability of marine resources on the high seas, giving to our generation the opportunity to change the status quo, which is no longer an option.
Mariamalia Rodríguez Chaves