UN to Launch Talks on Treaty to Regulate High Seas

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

Talks begin in New York tomorrow to negotiate a conservation treaty to regulate the high seas, in the first of four sessions, with a 2020 timetable set for a final agreement.

This initiative was put forward by New Zealand and Mexico, with more than seventy co-sponsors, according to an article in The Pioneer, High Seas Need to Get Fishy Again, and has been under development for years:

The ‘high seas’ used to mean all of the oceans beyond a cannon shot from land, but they have shrunk. All the ocean within 200 nautical miles (370 km) of land is now in some country’s ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’, and protecting fish stocks within the EEZs is the task of more than a hundred sovereign states with ocean coastlines. Some do it well; most don’t.

But out beyond the 200-nautical-mile  EEZs is still the ‘high seas’, where nobody regulates the fishing. That’s half of the planet’s entire surface, containing 90 per cent of the world’s biomass, but back in the 1980s, when UN members were negotiating the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), hardly anybody was fishing that far out.

Oceans in Trouble

A recent paper in the journal Current Biology, The Location and Protection Status of Earth’s Diminishing Marine Wilderness, documents the dire worldwide state of vanishing ocean wilderness, damaged by overfishing, and agricultural and plastics pollution (see my previous post for a rough synopsis, Ocean Wilderness Vanishing).

A biennial report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, issued in July, found that “Ninety-three percent of fish stocks are fully fished or overfished, with more than a third of stocks taken at unsustainable levels,” according to A High Seas Treaty to Protect Marine Biodiversity Could Benefit Fisheries.

Against this backdrop, The Guardian reported last week on research published in Science Advances on measures that could increase the amount of fish in the oceans, Improved fisheries management could offset many negative effects of climate change:

Even if temperatures rise by as much as 4C above pre-industrial levels – in the upper range of current forecasts – the damaging effects on fishing can be reduced through improving how stocks are fished and managed.

The Guardian account quoted one of the scientists involved in the Science Advances research:

“This is a positive message amid the doom and gloom,” said Kristin Kleisner, one of the authors of the study and a senior scientist at the US Environmental Defense Fund. “We can control how we manage our fisheries. We will have severe effects [from climate change] but this shows what we can do as humans to control that.”

If temperatures were to hit 4C above pre-industrial levels, but good management was put in place, there could still be an increase of 17% of the amount of fish in oceans, compared with a decline of 5% of fish biomass if current practices continue and the world warmed by only 1C.

Yet in order for such optimistic scenarios to be achieved, quck, decisive action on a new high seas regulatory framework is necessary. Over to The Guardian again:

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.”

The Pioneer article discussed the no fishing zones that a successful treaty would create:

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.

Ocean Conservation Unlikely to Be a Trump Priority

Unfortunately, it is unlikely this treaty will be a high priority for the Trump administration– nor, however, can the United States exercise much influence, given its failure to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention to which the new high seas framework would be an annex. As I wrote in my Ocean Wilderness post linked to above:

Alas, the United States has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention treaty. Although the US participated in negotiations on the treaty between 1973 and 1982, the Reagan administration refused to sign the convention, according to an article in The Diplomat, U.S. Ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention:

As a result, the United States remains off the list of 168 state parties to UNCLOS, a list which includes all other major maritime powers such as Russia and China. In practice, the United States has accepted and complies with nearly all the treaty’s provisions. On March 10, 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued the United States Oceans Policy Statement, supported by National Security Decision Directive 83, which documents the U.S. view that UNCLOS reflects customary international law and fulfils U.S. interest in “a comprehensive legal framework relating to competing uses of the world’s oceans.” Successive presidential administrations – Republican and Democrat – have relied upon Reagan’s precedent to legitimize and guide the Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program in global hot spots like the South and East China Seas.

So even as the United States invokes UNCLOS to assert the freedom of navigation and challenge excessive maritime claims, Washington has no seat at the table in protecting U.S. rights and claims within the treaty’s institutional framework. As a non-party, Washington remains on the outside looking in as the international community moves forward in defining the legal landscape affecting over 70 percent of the world’s surface.

Yet other UNCLOS signatories could nonetheless agree a viable high seas conservation framework. While the US can’t formally participate in this new initiative, nor is it likely to go out of its way to flout it either — despite currently ranking fifth on the list of the world’s top ten high-seas fishing nations, according to Winners and losers in a world where the high seas is closed to fishing, a paper published by the US National Institutes of Health.

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