Calling for An Integrated Framework to Manage the High Seas

By Senia Febrica

Webinar on “Exploring the threats facing the high seas and solutions to preserve a biodiverse ocean for generations to come” highlighted the sharp contrast between the interconnection between land and ocean as well as between different parts of the seas with the disconnection in ocean governance.

One of the One Ocean Hub Co-Directors, Professor Kerry Howell (Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology, University of Plymouth), a representative of the Hub’s partner organisation, Ms Jessica Battle (Senior Expert in Global Ocean Policy and Governance, WWF), and Mr Alan Simcock (UN Group of Experts of the Regular Process) stressed the importance to develop an integrated framework to manage the high seas. On Wednesday, 18th November 2020, Professor Howell, Ms Battle, and Mr Simcock delivered their presentation in the webinar which formed part of the Oxford Environmental Research Doctoral Training Partnership’s Grand Challenges seminar series. The webinar explored the threats facing high seas ecosystems and the steps to ensure that these essential commons is preserved for future generations.

Professor Howell’s presentation highlighted that the main challenge facing conservation and sustainable use of high seas is the disconnect between different sectors and industries that use these areas. Each of these sectors are managed by different United Nations (UN) bodies that have very little communication among them. In order to illustrate her point, Professor Howell pointed out how different international organizations are addressing the high seas and the deep seabed, including by putting in place different Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) networks. For instance, the International Seabed Authority that regulates deep-seabed mining is currently looking at regional management plans in areas licensed for mining that could include MPAs. At the same time, Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) that are responsible for fishery management are planning to establish MPAs to protect areas in the high-seas from bottom trawling. Similarly, the Convention on Biodiversity has been identifying and describing Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas (EBSAs) in the high seas as a technical and scientific input to ongoing discussions on the need for area-based conservation. But these different organizations have little to no communication with each other. Professor Howell further noted that even if we solve the issue of more coordinated management of the high seas, we still need to address the fundamental issue of lack of knowledge and data of deep-sea ecosystems – without such data, we will not be able to understand the impacts of human activities on ecosystems and how quickly the ecosystems can recover as a result of these activities.

Ms Battle presentation argued that MPA on the high seas are the legal gap that Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) seeks to address with a new treaty. She began her presentation by exploring various benefits of the ocean. She explained that 3 billion people rely on fish as a major source of animal protein and 90 per cent of fisherfolks are small-scale fishers and about half of them are women. Ms Battle further noted that the ocean also absorbs 93 per cent of heat and 30 per cent of carbon dioxide. Using plastics as an example, Ms Battle pointed out the interconnectedness between what we are doing in the land and life in the deep sea. Ms Battle further emphasized that high seas accounts half of the planet and ocean life knows no boundaries. To demonstrate her point, Ms Battle explained how migratory species in North Pacific Ocean such as tuna, marine turtles, and whales, travel within and outside areas of national jurisdiction, and encounter multiple human activities during their life cycle. Therefore, when it comes to ocean management, the governance needs to be inter-connected across different areas of the ocean. Ms Battle explained that an effective treaty to regulate the high seas needs to include all uses of the ocean – fishing, shipping, seabed mining, cable laying, bioprospecting, and the protection of marine life and habitat. An effective treaty according to Ms Battle also needs to include all users, including traditional knowledge holders and the transfer of marine technology needs to enable states, societies, and communities to contribute and share knowledge.

Mr Simcock began by explaining that we cannot manage the ocean and all that we can manage are the human activities that impact on the ocean. These activities according to Simcock include fisheries, shipping, potentially polluting land-based activities, coastal development, and scientific research. He further explained the existing international instruments, programmes and bodies to focus on the ocean including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the regional seas programme, RFMOs, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Maritime Organisation, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and the International Seabed Authority, as well as international chemicals regimes such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Mr Simcock then elaborated on a range of actions that need to take action to conserve and sustainably use the high seas, such as improving regional seas programmes and RFMOs, strengthening enforcement through port state control of fishing and fisheries, improving management structure and skills as well as scientific understanding of the high seas, and enhancing integration in ocean governance.

Professor Howell’s take-home message was underlining the importance of relying on a whole range of disciplines (across the marine and social sciences) to make progress in managing our ocean sustainably. Ms Battle concluded that the integration between social and economic factors is essential for effective ocean governance. Mr Simcock closed the webinar by encouraging everyone to look at the first global assessment of the UN regular process that entails good and bad practices in relation to ocean governance.

The One Ocean Hub is actively researching these questions and prototyping more integrated approaches to ocean research that could support more integrated governance of the high seas. See, for instance, a blog post on the importance of inclusive and integrated approaches to the ocean genome here and an open-access paper on the legal opportunities to make the BBNJ agreement an opportunity for global partnerships for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction here.