High stakes for the high seas

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The large meeting room at the United Nations room was full to the point of bursting as governments, assisted by NGOs and other groups, gathered to start developing the first new treaty for oceans in over 20 years.

As the European Union representative placed the Easter bunny on the table – it was Easter Monday, a working day at the UN – the room felt a good place to be, a room filled with energy and a sense of purpose. But it will be a long journey before a full treaty for the oceans beyond national borders is a “done deal.”

There are many different interests in room: NGOs such as WWF and our coalition partners in the High Seas Alliance are looking for protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity; others come to the table to ensure that all states can obtain benefits from the development of new drugs and biochemical processes contained in the genetic material of marine organisms. And yet others – those we must convince of the need for a treaty – want to ensure freedom of navigation, and the independence of international bodies regulating ocean use today. Governments often end up promoting all these interests at once!

WWF is keen to ensure that a robust treaty is achieved, one that ensures that biodiversity is protected, that all states have equal access to and benefits from marine genetic resources through a sensible legal regime, and that a sustainable development framework underpins an integrated approach to the management of all ocean uses.

When the world’s leaders gathered last year to agree on the new development framework for the coming 15 years, the ocean was afforded its own Sustainable Development Goal – an unprecedented recognition of the role our ocean plays in human well-being.


“So, why do we need a new treaty?” the hesitant negotiators ask. They are correct that we already have a set of agreements designed to regulate individual sectors using ocean resources. But there is no means under international law to protect high seas marine biodiversity, let alone designate and ensure management of marine protected areas in important places beyond national jurisdiction.

As our demands on the oceans intensify with new uses for both ocean life and minerals, this previously “unlimited” resource is being emptied and polluted. The once “vast” oceans are becoming crowded with competing priorities. The dire consequences, which would be obvious on land, are often hidden under the surface or only evident on a distant shore.

Laptev, Russia, August 2013. © Alexei Ebel / WWF-CanonLaptev, Russia, August 2013. © Alexei Ebel / WWF

Seabed mining for manganese nodules – little metal-rich spheres littering the seafloor at several thousand metres’ depth – involves bulldozing large tracts of ocean floor, bringing sediment and all manner of marine life to the surface to be sifted before all but the nodules are dumped back into the sea. The plumes from such activity disperse through the ocean and can travel thousands of kilometres – in their wake affecting fish stocks, plankton and human activities far from the mining site.

The Paris climate conference at the end of last year showed the world that governments can take bold steps for a global common; now we need to see the same resolve for the ocean beyond national jurisdiction – the second global common so in need of urgent help. This new treaty, if afforded enough strength, will help achieve these goals. This is good for people and the planet, and I look forward to assisting governments in building this important new agreement.

Jessica Battle is marine manager for WWF International.

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