- At the close of two weeks of negotiations on Aug. 26 in New York, delegates from around the world had failed to net consensus on a high-stakes, legally binding treaty to conserve biodiversity on the high seas.
- These areas beyond national jurisdictions comprise two-thirds of the global ocean and are a vast, resource-rich global commons. Yet there is no comprehensive, agreed-upon framework governing resource extraction or conservation there.
- Top sticking points included fair access to marine resources for all and how to establish marine protected areas on the high seas.
- The meeting was the fifth of four planned diplomatic sessions that began in 2017 following more than 10 years of discussion. It ended with a commitment to reconvene before the year is over.
U.N. member states came tantalizingly close to sealing a deal for a high-stakes, legally binding treaty to conserve biodiversity on the high seas, areas beyond national jurisdiction that comprise two-thirds of the global ocean. At the close of negotiations on Aug. 26 in New York, however, delegates had failed to net consensus. Top sticking points included fair access to marine resources for all and how to establish marine protected areas.
The meeting of 168 U.N. member states ended with a commitment to reconvene before the year is over.
“We’re closer to the finish line than we’ve ever been before but … we still need a little more time,” Rena Lee of Singapore, president of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, the body negotiating the treaty, said to delegates.
This was the fifth of four planned diplomatic sessions that began in 2017 following more than 10 years of discussion. The two-week-long meeting included a ramped-up dual schedule of negotiating groups and plenary sessions aimed at finally reaching a deal.
The idea is for the treaty to close governance gaps and address contemporary challenges not covered by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was adopted in 1982, before present-day threats to biodiversity were anticipated.
Home to up to 10 million different species, many as yet unidentified, the high seas are a vast, resource-rich global commons worth a lot — no one knows just how much. They belong to everyone and no one, and so far, there is no comprehensive, agreed-upon framework governing resource extraction or conservation there.
Technological advances enabling greater access to high seas resources are exposing marine ecosystems to severe impacts from fisheries and other extractive industries. Pollution and climate change are further destabilizing ocean systems that buffer the planet from global warming, provide a primary protein source for more than 3 billion people, and affect the livelihoods of almost 600 million, according to a 2022 report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Four areas key to a sustainable biodiversity conservation agreement were discussed in New York: sharing marine genetic resources (MGRs) fairly; implementing area-based management tools like marine protected areas (MPAs); setting standards for environmental impact assessments for activities on the high seas; and ensuring less-industrialized countries can meet treaty objectives through a mechanism for sharing marine technology and knowledge.
“Quite incredible” progress was made, according to Pakistan representative Kasim Aziz Butt, speaking at the final plenary session on behalf of the Group of 77 (or G77) plus China, the biggest negotiating bloc of less-industrialized nations. “Had this flexibility and openness to appreciating the vital needs of our delegates across all parts of this package come earlier, perhaps we could have seen an agreement wrapped up today,” he said.
A ‘bittersweet’ result
Delegates expressed deep disappointment that they did not reach agreement. How to equitably share the benefits from MGRs across industrialized and less-industrialized nations without the resources to access them directly proved especially contentious. Biochemicals derived from MGRs have proven profitable for the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, agriculture, antifoulant and adhesives industries.
A negotiating bloc of Latin American nations decried richer states’ rigidity and continued focus on their own economic interests. They called for more flexibility to ensure benefits from high-seas MGRs are shared by all and not only for the commercial interests of a few.
Delegates couldn’t decide the finer points of developing an overarching mechanism for implementing and managing MPAs, or how to integrate this with existing fisheries management policy. They also grappled unsuccessfully with the details of how the environmental impacts of planned activities should be assessed.
There was a win for Indigenous peoples and local communities, who were named stakeholders in clauses relating to knowledge sharing and area-based management.
The progress made across all areas and a “near universal demonstration of good faith and flexibility” lent a “bittersweet” offset to the disappointment of failing to clinch a deal, said Julian Jackson of the Washington, D.C.-based policy group Pew Charitable Trusts. Jackson attended the conference as an observer, having moved from representing the U.K. at U.N. negotiations to head Pew’s European campaign to protect life in the high seas.
Additional pressure to finalize a treaty came from more than 100 states, chaired by Costa Rica and France, that have grouped together to formally champion protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. That target depends on a signed and sealed high seas treaty that includes a framework to designate and manage MPAs. Without one, an impossible 100% of state-owned exclusive economic zones would need to be designated protected areas to reach the so-called 30 by 30 target.
“If we have a goal to protect 30% of the global ocean, the high seas have to be part of that solution,” Kristina Gjerde, senior high seas adviser to global wildlife conservation authority the IUCN, told Mongabay from the conference in New York.
Why has it been so difficult to agree?
Biodiversity is a cross-cutting issue, but the current marine policy and management framework, established by UNCLOS, is sectoral, as well as incomplete in its coverage and inconsistent with present-day needs.
“No one should be surprised that it is harder to fit a new agreement into a family of existing agreements and their implementation histories than it would be to start from scratch — which NO ONE is willing to do,” Jake Rice, chief scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a government department, told Mongabay in an email.
Many delegates, NGOs, scientists and environmental activists say they want the treaty to enable the cohesive designation and management of high seas MPAs. Their aim is to give the third of global fish stocks that are currently overfished beyond biological limits a chance to recover.
“Fisheries are the largest impact on the ocean at the moment,” Jackson of Pew told Mongabay. Yet there are still some states trying to exclude fisheries from the treaty altogether. Doing so “would be a gaping hole in the process,” Jackson said.
“No new agreement on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction would mean much, if none of its provisions applied in any way whatsoever to fisheries,” Rice said.
But the concern is that there are already two international agreements that apply to high seas fisheries: UNCLOS and the U.N. Fish Stocks Agreement. All those who invested time, expertise and resources into implementing those existing agreements do not want to see a new biodiversity treaty “run roughshod” over progress made under them. “Finding the right balance between those two extremes is a VERY complex policy challenge,” Rice said.
Many of the obstacles stalling the treaty are fundamental to achieving a meaningful agreement. But not all, Gjerde said. “Some issues raised are just to block or stall progress,” she said. “We can no longer afford to be hijacked by the efforts of a few who are unlikely to join the agreement anyway.”
Jackson suggested there may be a mismatch between strong top-level political will for a robust treaty and negotiating room stalling by a minority of delegates, a position echoed by some outside observers. Actress Jane Fonda called out the U.S.’s assistant secretary for ocean, environment and science, Monica Median: “Hey @MonicaMedinaDC You need to read this. Where is the US’s leadership on ocean protection?” she tweeted. Activists protesting outside the U.N. in New York on Aug. 26 likewise expressed concern that very few governments had sent high-level ministerial staff to the negotiation.
Just 10 industrialized countries account for 71% of fishing catch value and 98% of patents on genetic sequences of marine life in the high seas. The disparity between industrialized and less-industrialized countries permeated all levels of the conference, beyond the obvious issue of who has the resources to do what in the high seas, and right into the meeting rooms.
“Developing countries often have significantly fewer representatives — sometimes only one person having to cover every issue,” Gjerde of the IUCN told Mongabay. Lack of capacity to send full delegations, especially with a dual meeting schedule, “puts these countries at a disadvantage.”
The $260,000 that Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) spent to send a full delegation of 24 representatives “may not seem like much to some,” the Samoan delegate, Matilda Bartley, said addressing the assembled delegates on behalf of the PSIDS bloc, “but to us it is a substantial investment. This money was not spent on roads, on medicine, on schools. It was spent here.”
Adding yet another round of talks puts extra pressure that industrialized nations don’t face on the overstretched resources of less-industrialized states, many of which would be the first to feel the sting of biodiversity collapse in the high seas. Some already rely on a fund, which some industrialized nations donate voluntarily to, in order to attend the negotiations at all.
Despite the obstacles, Jackson expressed optimism the next round of talks would finally yield fruit. “It really needs just one final push,” he said. But even once a treaty is agreed, one to two years is as speedy as implementation normally gets, with some treaties taking many years to get off the starting block, he noted. “If you do it right, it can be done relatively quickly,” he said. But that is once the treaty has been ratified by enough member states, usually 30, to bring it into force.
Biodiversity protection on the high seas won’t arrive overnight. But Gjerde said there’s a lot that can be done right now, even without a high seas treaty: we can exchange science and knowledge, rein in plans for harmful activities like deep-sea mining, and push integrated, ecosystem-based management.
Gjerde, too, expressed confidence that a 2022 finish line is within reach. Nevertheless, she said, “As ocean degradation continues and will accelerate, it is important to start taking action now, even before the treaty is agreed.”
Banner image: A humpback whale. Whales spend a significant part of their lives in the high seas. Image by Silvana Palacios via Pexels (Public domain).
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