UN talks begin on a new law to save our oceans

| 30th January 2015
A rosier future for the high seas beckons. Photo: Moyan Brenn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
A rosier future for the high seas beckons. Photo: Moyan Brenn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Countries at the UN have agreed to start formal negotiations on a new 'legally binding instrument' to conserve the biological riches of the high seas that cover 45% of planet Earth, and ensure their sustainable use for the benefit of all mankind.
The high seas are like a failed state. Poor governance and the absence of policing and management mean valuable resources are unprotected or being squandered.

The United Nations has resolved to modernise international law on the sustainable use of the high seas and their wildlife.

The move could lead to new laws to address many of the oceans most severe problems, including measures to combat over-fishing and illegal fishing, the regulation of 'by catch' by fishing vessels, and the conservation of endangered species.

Other issues on the agenda include the protection of the seabed from deep sea mining, ocean acidification from rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, marine biodiversity prospecting, regulation of offshore oil and gas drilling, and the clean up of vast floating islands of plastic waste.

Following the decision by the United Nations Informal Working Group on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), negotiations will now begin for a new international agreement for the sustainable use and conservation of marine biodiversity in the high seas.

Encouraging and historic

The decision was welcomed by David Miliband, Co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission (GOC), who had himself addressed delegates at the BBNJ meeting. It was "encouraging to see the UN agreeing to take action", he said.

"This was one of the main demands identified by the Global Ocean Commission. I'm glad the message is getting across. The consensus reached last week will be remembered as a milestone in the modernisation of ocean governance."

GOC Commissioner Robert Hill, who was the first Chairperson of the BBNJ when it was formed in 2006, called last week's decision "historic", adding:

"As always with UN processes, the work is far from over. First, we have to ensure the consensus recommendation is not undermined when it goes before the General Assembly in a few months and, second, it will be important to monitor closely the treaty negotiation - including the Preparatory Committee process and ultimately the international conference."

Last year the GOC called for a new Implementing Agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to prioritise ocean health and resilience, restore ocean productivity, guard against irresponsible, inefficient and wasteful exploitation, and allow for the creation of high seas marine protected areas (MPAs).

Such an agreement would extend governance to the 64% of the global ocean that lies outside national jurisdiction, and provide a mechanism to conserve valuable high seas services such as carbon sequestration, worth between US$74 and US$222 billion annually, currently in jeopardy.

Time to end the high seas 'failed state'

"The high seas are like a failed state" , said Miliband. "Poor governance and the absence of policing and management mean valuable resources are unprotected or being squandered. The high seas belong to us all. We know what needs to be done but we can't do it alone. A joint mission must be our priority."

The GOC's call was relayed and supported by more than 285,000 citizens from 111 countries, who signed a petition that was delivered to the UN Secretary General at the opening of the current Session of the UN General Assembly in September last year.

The BBNJ was mandated by the Rio+20 2012 Earth Summit to address the governance and conservation of the high seas - the portion of the ocean beyond a country's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. These areas beyond national jurisdiction cover 45% of our entire planet.



Join the call: 'Help secure a living ocean, food and prosperity - propose a new agreement for high seas protection'.



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