Protecting the High Seas Tops 2 Important Agendas

While representatives gather at the U.N. in New York to negotiate conservation of marine life in areas beyond national jurisdiction, delegates to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress will meet in Hawaii to also discuss high seas protections.

From Aug. 26 to Sept. 9, representatives of governments from around the world will gather at the United Nations for the second in a series of Preparatory Committee meetings to negotiate provisions of a new international treaty to protect marine biodiversity on the high seas. These areas beyond national jurisdiction make up two-thirds of the world’s ocean, but only an insufficient patchwork of management mechanisms govern them, and there is little coordination across the bodies that regulate such industries as fishing, mining, and shipping, creating complicated jurisdictional issues. The new treaty could help to close gaps where no one country or body has full authority to act and create opportunities to establish marine protected areas (MPAs), including fully protected reserves, on the high seas.

These negotiations also happen to fall during the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, which will be held in Honolulu during the first 10 days of September. The Congress is held every four years and is an opportunity for thousands of conservation and government leaders to come together and chart a future for environmental protection. Delegates will vote on motions that will help guide policymakers in their work toward a more sustainable future.

Among them is motion 49, which promotes the development of the U.N. treaty and specifically notes the importance of including mechanisms to create marine protected areas, including reserves, in areas beyond national jurisdiction. A 2016 study found that in order to successfully preserve healthy ecosystems, 30 percent of the world’s ocean should be protected through MPAs and reserves. But today, less than 1 percent of the high seas is fully protected.

So the stakes are high in New York and in Honolulu, with action in one place sure to influence what happens in the other. While the first Preparatory Committee meeting at the U.N. set the stage for the negotiations, this second meeting is an opportunity to really get into the details, and the perfect chance for governments to cooperate and consider how a high seas agreement will truly work.

MPAs, including fully protected marine reserves, are some of the most important means that governments have to protect the ocean. With science on their side, U.N. negotiators have a chance to draft strong language that takes into account the needs of marine environments on the high seas. At the same time, by adopting motion 49, World Conservation Congress attendees can reaffirm the importance of this treaty and of MPAs and reserves. Whether meeting on the island of Hawaii or the isle of Manhattan, policymakers and scientists have the chance this summer to show that the serious momentum for high seas protections continues to grow.

Elizabeth Wilson directs international ocean policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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