Protecting Half of the Earth from Overexploitation

As summer starts in the northern hemisphere, the ocean draws people for relaxation or adventure. Some may walk the beach, go sailing, or take a cruise. Most will enjoy the sea’s vastness from the shore, never experiencing distant oceans. Yet some—commercial fishing crews and mineral explorers—ply the high seas routinely in search of marketable commodities. And even if we have never seen the ocean, everyone is affected by what happens beyond the horizon on the open seas.

The high seas—nearly 50 percent of the Earth’s surface—are at serious risk because of  a global race to exploit natural resources in these waters without the rules or oversight needed to prevent irreversible damage,” said Elizabeth Wilson, director of international ocean policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Competing visions and needs often complicate international negotiations, but we simply cannot afford to let politics hold up protecting our common resources.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides the legal framework for managing the open ocean—the waters beyond nations’ exclusive economic zones.  Beginning June 16, a U.N. working group meets in New York to discuss whether to proceed with negotiations on what is known as a new implementing agreement to protect the high seas under the convention.

Though there are governing bodies and frameworks in place for managing certain activities in these waters, such as fishing, there is no comprehensive agreement for protecting the broader biological diversity of the open ocean. The high seas are under threat from commercial and other human activities, including pollution, fishing, drilling, and other extractive enterprises.

A report commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission highlights 15 “ecosystem services” provided by the high seas. Among the most critical, according to The High Seas and Us: Understanding the Value of High-Seas Ecosystems, is carbon sequestration. “[N]early half a billion tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of over 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, are captured and stored by high-seas ecosystems annually,” the report says, placing a value on this of US$74 billion to US$222 billion a year.

The report, released June 5, concludes that current high seas governance is “wholly inadequate.” It says improvements are needed in research on the economic and ecological consequences of human activity on the high seas and calls for support for building scientific capacity in developing countries. Ultimately, only improved management can secure the value from high seas ecosystem services, according to the report.

In April many nations stood up and spoke in favor of moving forward with a new agreement,’’ Wilson said. “Now the focus is on how states can come together and make protection of high seas biodiversity a reality. The world is watching and waiting, but we can’t afford to wait much longer.

The General Assembly has until September 2015 to decide whether to move forward with negotiations on a new agreement.

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