You wouldn’t know it from land, but 45% of the surface of the globe lies outside the control of any government. The high seas (and seabed) are designated as “Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction” by the UN, with little regulation and few environmental safeguards.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adopted in 1982, already provides a “Constitution for the Ocean”, but it doesn’t say much about the high seas or the seabed that lies beyond our borders.
Indeed, we used to believe that these areas were not worth exploiting or protecting, but scientific and technological advancements are opening up a world of possibilities.
What lies beneath
In recent decades, cargo shipping has grown rapidly and industrial fishing has moved into ever deeper and more distant waters. At the same time, a range of novel activities are under development. Contracts have been signed with the International Seabed Authority to mine valuable minerals from the seabed, and scientists and entrepreneurs are dreaming up new ways to use the ocean to mitigate climate change through “geoengineering”. One such idea is to “fertilise” the ocean with iron, stimulating algal blooms that can lock away carbon.
We have also found a wealth of potential uses for the unusual genes contained in unique deep sea organisms. “Marine genetic resources” taken from these organisms are now turning up in everything from anti-cancer drugs to high-end skin creams. The search to find such genes, known as “bioprospecting”, has begun in earnest, with the US, Germany, and Japan, leading the charge.
All this activity puts further pressure on already stressed and fragile marine ecosystems, and will only be exacerbated by climate change and ocean acidification.
This is a problem. Though we are not always aware of the vast ocean expanse beyond the horizon, the high seas provide us with a range of invaluable resources, not least seafood, clean air, and the global sea routes that deliver goods from across the globe to our doorstep.
The high seas contain unique habitats - such as huge underwater mountains and vents that spew boiling water into the icy depths - and we are constantly discovering new flora and fauna making their homes in these extreme environments.
At the same time, high seas ecosystems are highly interconnected with the seas and coasts that do happen to fall within national jurisdiction, with species constantly criss-crossing the arbitrary lines we have drawn on the map.
If we fail to to properly manage our global ocean, we have a lot to lose.
Unfortunately the global regulatory framework for these areas is a hodgepodge of different legal instruments and organisations that mostly do not work well together. Even when they do, huge gaps remain.
There is currently no way to create internationally recognised marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas, while the exploitation of marine genetic resources has been a thorny issue because their status under international law is unclear. There are no global rules requiring the assessment of the environmental impacts of a range of activities, including bioprospecting.
Despite a consensus decision to press on with negotiations, states haven’t always seen eye to eye. In particular, there has been intense ideological debate about the status of marine genetic resources: developing countries are concerned that only the wealthiest countries can afford to exploit this common resource, while many developed countries don’t want their potentially profitable activities to be subject to regulation.
States agree on some issues, such as the need to provide developing countries with the know-how and technology to conduct marine scientific research. International guidelines are already in place, but states have been slow to act. Some efforts have been made, such as the provision of training for early career scientists in developing countries and shared scientific cruises, but such efforts are limited, ad hoc, and uncoordinated. It is unclear how a new agreement could kickstart a new era of assistance and cooperation.
Even issues that initially appear easy to address may ultimately prove tough to resolve in the context of charged negotiations. For example, while almost all states have their own environmental impact assessment laws at home, agreeing a similar process for the high seas is likely to be far more complicated.
The current consensus is already an uneasy one, and this meeting is only the first of four that will take place in 2016 and 2017. It won’t be until 2018 that the UN General Assembly decides on the convening of an intergovernmental conference to adopt a new treaty.
This is undoubtedly an historic and optimistic moment, and an important first step to ensuring that our global ocean gets the protection it so badly needs. Nonetheless it seems likely that there will be many more storms ahead before any heads of state are signing on the dotted line.