Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

A New Treaty to Protect Biodiversity in the High Seas: Progress and Uncertainty

Guillermo Ortuño-Crespo, right, at UN

Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), established by the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, account for 64% of the world’s oceans and thus more than 45% of the planetary surface. While some ABNJ are found above to the continental shelf, most lie beyond the continental shelf break, making most ABNJ oceanic waters. Recognizing the importance of ABNJ, the international community has become increasingly alarmed with their growing industrialization and fragmented governance regime.  

These concerns have led to fundamental shifts in attitudes toward conservation and sustainable use of ABNJ and new opportunities to inform their management and governance.  After more than a decade of discussions, the UN is negotiating a new international legally binding instrument (ILBI) for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ); literally a new environmental governance regime for half of the planet.  

The International Seabed Authority which governs deep-sea mining has begun developing regional environmental management plans. UNESCO is considering application of the World Heritage Convention to ABNJ. International fisheries have had a new light shown on them through satellite tracking technology. The Convention on Biological Diversity is wrapping up the first iteration of a process to describe Biologically and Ecologically Significant Areas in the global ocean, and the Convention on Migratory Species is seeking to better understand how ecological networks can better support conservation of marine migratory species.

With this new ILBI, the United Nations (UN) is seeking to reinforce the legal regime in international waters in charge of conserving marine biodiversity. It is of utmost importance that in doing so, the UN makes sure that the full scope of marine BBNJ is considered.

Duke University – through the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL) – has been among a small group of academic institutions participating in this process. While MGEL’s involvement in ocean governance processes extends well over a decade, the lab has been particularly involved in the BBNJ process the last 3 years; providing both informational side events and policy briefs. The process, now entering the negotiations phase, is unfolding according to schedule: four intergovernmental conferences (IGCs) between 2018 and 2020 to negotiate the text for the new treaty.

The second IGC recently took place at the UN headquarters in New York City and concluded with a generalized commitment to have a ‘zero-draft’ before the third round of negotiations. Members of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab presented in two separate side events at the UN, addressing important topics related to (1) the transboundary connectivity of migratory species between the high seas and national waters and (2) the taxonomic coverage of the new ILBI, particularly with respect to fish biodiversity.

Parties to the new agreement must ensure that the full scope of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction is taken into account. Avoiding institutional redundancies should not result in thousands of species continuing to slip through the cracks of the mosaic of sectoral intergovernmental instruments, such as regional fisheries management organizations. While much progress has been made in the four main areas of the negotiations (area-based management tools (ABMTs); environmental impact assessments (EIAs); capacity building and technology transfer; marine genetic resources), much uncertainty remains around how the new instrument will interact with existing intergovernmental agreements and bodies and how information such as the transboundary migration patterns of species will be incorporated into any decision about EIAs or ABMTs.

Guillermo Ortuño-Crespo