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Hope on the Horizon in the High Seas

Blog by: Emily Nocito, MS – Blue Parks Intern

In September 2019 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, painting a picture of calamity on the horizon. This report, composed of over 100 scientists from 30+ countries, tackled a variety of issues pertaining to the cryosphere and ocean, ranging from sea level rise to high mountain areas. Its conclusions? Fisheries are collapsing; ice sheets are melting.

A glimmer of hope is on the horizon. The United Nations has been negotiating a legally-binding instrument that will directly concern our high seas. This amendment under the Convention on the Law of the Sea deals directly with biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction—i.e. marine life and habitats in international waters. The high seas make up 64% of the ocean’s surface and 95% of its volume. Area-based management tools, such as marine protected areas, are among the topics under discussion for this high seas amendment. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a management tool that aims to keep natural areas in their natural state. The reasoning behind their creation can be for the conservation of biodiversity, protection of species, economic resources or any mix of these elements. Our high seas are home to some of the most amazing species and naturally occurring formations—with many more still to discover. Scientists estimate that there are millions of species unknown to man in the high seas—many of which, without high seas protection, are vulnerable to human activities like destructive fishing and shipping.

Additional high seas protections are urgently necessary. Through the legally-binding instrument, a new precedent for high seas conservation glimmers on the horizon.  Currently, just over 1% of the high seas is under some form of protection. While creating any MPA is challenging, the high seas add an additional layer of complexity. Questions of enforcement, funding, and spatial needs are often brought up as concerns because it is unclear who is responsible for addressing them, but these are barriers that can be broken down. The creation of this international, legally-binding instrument is a way to jump start the process. The only way to produce the best version of this document is through international cooperation. Countries must put aside their geopolitical differences to focus on what matters: hope for our high seas.

Putting aside geopolitical differences for the high seas has happened before. In 2016, the Ross Sea MPA in Antarctica was formed through the cooperation of nation-states and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) . To date, the Ross Sea MPA is the largest marine reserve in the world. Nearly untouched by humans, the waters are home to large krill populations that feed species such as fish, whales and penguins. This decision did not happen instantaneously; rather, it took five years of negotiations. Yet it proved that high seas MPAs are possible, through cooperation at the international level. We all rely on the seas; isn’t it time we let them rely on us?

As a leader in the High Seas Alliance and Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, Marine Conservation Institute advocates for an effective treaty that can establish enduring ocean protections on the high seas. Show your support for protecting the biodiversity of the high seas by signing our petition calling on all nations to construct an ambitious high seas treaty and put legal protection in place for the unprotected half of our planet.