First Set of High Seas Treaty Negotiations Concludes in New York

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Trump will return to Manhattan this week, to share his own special diplomatic charisma with lucky audiences at the United Nations (UN). He’ll address the General Assembly on Tuesday, and then chair a special session of the Security Council on Wednesday (for an overview of this week’s UN agenda, see this WaPo summary, Trump renews his battle with UN).

Meanwhile, the first of four planned sets of UN negotiations to achieve a high seas treaty by 2020 concluded last week, also in New York. I first laid out the background and purpose of these talks in this post from earlier this month, UN to Launch Talks on Treaty to Regulate High Seas.

Reporting on the the outcome of the first in this series of talks was thin, and what I saw sent mixed messages. On the one hand, this account, First Intergovernmental Conference Comes to a Close, posted on the website of the High Seas Alliance, comprising more than forty NGOs that promote conservation of the high seas, spun the two weeks of negotiations as a success:

The main business of the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) concluded with applause on Friday, September 14 and closing remarks by the President of the Conference Ambassador Rena Lee of Singapore. There was a palpable sense of optimism in the room, as it was evident that there is a clear path towards a treaty to protect the high seas.

By contrast, this report from Inter Press Services, First Steps Towards a Global Agreement on the High Seas highlighted that discussions concluded without at anytime achieving an expected milestone– presentation of a draft treaty for consideration:

The world’s first efforts to develop a way to govern the high seas – international waters beyond the 200 nautical mile national boundary – is truly underway. The initial round of negotiations at the United Nations has just ended after two weeks of talks.

On the face of it, given the importance and scale of the task, some may feel there has not been much progress. But it is significant that despite the range of views and interests in the room, all the member states of the UN engaging in this intergovernmental conference to ‘formulate a legally binding treaty to govern the conservation and use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction’ (BBNJ) remain committed to the process and the goal.

Although member states and civil society had expected a draft treaty to be presented for consideration, it wasn’t, and therefore the discussions were similar to previous preparatory committee meeting phases.

There are numerous obstacles that must be surmounted. First, I should mention, that the United States never ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)– a policy decision that dates to the Reagan Administration. The Trump administration shows little desire to extend UN scope and authority, and I doubt has any interest in revisiting this  issue (see this post for further details Ocean Wilderness Vanishing).

Russia has been less than enthusiastic about a comprehensive new agreement, and traditional whaling countries– Iceland, Japan, and Norway– are skeptical, as they oppose tight fishing restrictions, according to this account in The Hindu, UN begins talks on treaty to protect imperilled high seas. The Inter Press Services piece further mentions that Russia, Iceland, and Japan, believe that existing regional initiatives are sufficient to provide sufficient governance mechanisms to address new priorities..

Unfortunately, such a patchwork framework excludes the high seas– the part of the ocean covering half of the planet– and according to Inter Press Services:

There is a clear risk that lack of effective governance will play to the interests of richer countries that have the resources to exploit the biodiversity of the high seas and can proceed without benefit to the bulk of the world’s population….

Limiting high seas governance to regional initiatives would mean nothing more than maintaining the status quo. We need to end this fragmentation of high seas governance and work towards establishing a fair and inclusive global instrument. It’s about sharing half of the planet with all of the world’s people.

All member states are keen to see a draft treaty text in the next BBNJ intergovernmental meeting that can be a focus for negotiations. There must also be more time to discuss cross-cutting issues, including financing, institutional arrangements and clarifying decision-making processes.

The Time Is Now

Time to address these problems may be running out, as this Guardian account, Fish populations could rise in warming climate with better management — which I also quoted in my post earlier this month–makes clear

Prof Alex Rogers of Oxford University told the Guardian that international action and a global treaty must be brought in as soon as possible, before the current damage turns into a catastrophe. “The situation is very urgent. We need to bring our activities at sea to a sustainable level,” he said. “The status quo cannot be allowed to continue, if we want to preserve ocean health and have fish for tomorrow.”

The threats to ocean life include not only climate change, acidification and overfishing, but the pollution, including plastics and agricultural chemicals that we pour into the sea, and our industrial exploitation of the seabed, for instance for oil and gas exploration and mining. These activities have been enabled by new technology, which is not taken into account in current sea governance, which dates back to the 16th century, according to Rogers.

The governance of the high seas, which cover most of the oceans beyond national jurisdictions, had failed to keep up with this pace of change, he added: “These new activities can ramp up very quickly, and do tremendous damage in a very short time.”

There is some grounds for optimism that it’s not too late to address the overfishing problem, according to  this account, High seas need to get fishy again in The Pioneer:

The treaty’s main achievement, if it succeeds, will be to create and supervise ‘marine protected areas’ (MPAs) on the high seas in which no fishing whatever is permitted. They need to be very large — advocates talk in terms of MPAs adding up to at least one-third of the entire high seas area — in order to allow entire ocean ecosystems to recover, from corals and sponges up to tuna, sharks and turtles.

Policing these MPAs once they are created would be a lot simpler than enforcing the rules closer to shore, because the high seas fishing fleets are big ships operating in relatively uncrowded waters. Satellites would quickly spot one fishing in the wrong area, and the fines would build up quickly.

Meanwhile, smaller vessels fishing in the EEZs might find that they were catching more fish. Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, estimates that closing all the high seas to commercial fishing would turn them into a “fish bank” that produced more and more fish, many of which then migrated to the EEZs and boosted the catch there by 18 per cent.

It’s late in the day, and the oceans are already badly damaged. A new treaty cannot stop warming and acidification from making them an increasingly difficult environment for life. It probably won’t even address the plastic plague. But it will provide a large safe haven where fish populations can recover, at least for a while.

Too optimistic? Perhaps. But the alternative is to ignore the problem, and that mean it would only get worse.

National Efforts to Curtail Illegal Fishing

While efforts are underway to negotiate a high seas framework, Indonesia has independently taken drastic steps to curtail illegal fishing in its territorial waters, as the AP reported last month in Indonesia sinks 125 mostly foreign illegal fishing vessels:

Indonesia has sunk 125 mostly foreign vessels involved in illegal fishing as it ramps up efforts to exert greater control over its vast maritime territory, an official said Wednesday.

The sinkings at 11 locations across Indonesia were carried out simultaneously on Monday.

Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry spokeswoman Lily Pregiwati said Wednesday the operation wasn’t announced in advance to avoid straining relations with neighboring countries.

Indonesia says it has sunk 488 illegal fishing vessels since October 2014, usually with explosives. The government says the illegal boats are a threat to the local fishing industry. Their operators are frequently perpetrators of modern day slavery, using workers trafficked from Southeast Asian nations.

The vessels sunk on Monday included 86 Vietnamese-flagged ships, 20 Malaysian and 14 from the Philippines.

Indonesia has targeted smaller, mainly foreign vessels, and not the large ones that currently fish the high seas. I notice the absence of China in the list of the flags flown by the most recently sunk ships,  even though– due to the extent of the exclusive economic zone Indonesia claims, the AP notes:

Its northerly reaches are regarded by China as its traditional fishing grounds despite their distance from the Chinese mainland.

Needless to say, blowing up errant foreign fishing vessels in the claimed territorial waters of one country is an insufficient response to the global overfishing problem. Perhaps the next set of high seas negotiations– tentatively set to occur as early as March 2019– will achieve some broader progress.

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  1. JTMcPhee

    Just more divvying up and making “legal” the extraction (to the end of the game) of anything monetizable or consumable. Is there a prize for killing the last tuna or whale or herring or shark or cod or octopus…? One can bet that some filthy rich person would pay a yuuuuge premium to be the one to delectate the last morsel of some now extinct species, maybe in the hope of increased sexual potency or prolonged life.

    Would be nice if humans could be nice to each other. And stewards, not gluttons, of the rest of the planet. Not going to happen, most likely. Hence Indonesia sinking fishing boats from other places.

    More incentive to develop nuclear weapons, or other asymmetries, to “protect one’s position” on the mass race to the bottom of the barrel…

  2. albert

    Limiting overfishing is an important and necessary goal, but it’s important to understand that the fish population can be destroyed from the bottom up. Phytoplankton are tiny biotic organisms that use photosynthesis to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide, like land-based plants. They also provide food for smaller sea creatures. It’s not hard to imagine the damage that a loss of phytoplankton would do to larger sea creatures. Not only that, but they are major producers of oxygen, IIRC, more than land-based plants. So we are killing them off -and- destroying the forests. What happens when we reach the minimum phytoplankton population -and- the lowest level of land-based plants? Where will our oxygen supply come from then?
    . .. . .. — ….

  3. Senator-Elect

    Thank you, indeed, Jerri-Lynn, for your continuing coverage of these underreported issues. Your articles are a true treasure.

    In this case, just the fact that talks are underway is good news, as it shows that scientists are managing to get this critical issue on the table. It would be nice if the media would pay attention, too, so as to put pressure on states to make some progress. If more people knew that efforts to protect the oceans were underway, they would be able to apply pressure to their respective governments.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I wonder if the Arctic will count as high seas as the ice melts and makes accessible all that is there.

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