Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

Strengthening Duke’s Ocean Leadership at the United Nations

by Guillermo Ortuño Crespo and Gabrielle Carmine

We are in the midst of two global crises on climate and biodiversity. Fewer places represent the seriousness of these challenges better than the global ocean. The global ocean has absorbed much of the excess carbon dioxide and heat that humans have generated, while experiencing a ruthless loss of biodiversity to industrialized resource extraction, habitat destruction, and pollution. Human population is expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050 at a time where the annual per capita seafood consumption is at a high of 20kg and increasing. Our oceans need a break.

Addressing the current global ocean crisis will require engaging with all relevant actors and stakeholders. This means questioning the dysfunction of the ruling powers that mismanage our global oceans through the allowance of illegal trade, harmful subsidies, and governance loopholes. This is particularly urgent in international waters, or otherwise known as the High Seas, where decades of commercial exploitation and legal loopholes have pushed the open-ocean to its ecological limit.

Over the last few decades, the UN has established a fragmented patchwork of international management bodies that attempt to regulate sectoral activities in the High Seas. Their communication is poor, which leads to significant gaps for governance of human activities on High Seas biodiversity. The UN is currently negotiating a new legally binding treaty that would potentially bridge this governance gap. This potential management of biodiversity on the High Seas would represent 46% of our planet. Throughout the negotiations, there have been repeated attempts by industrialized seafearing nations to weaken the scope of the treaty. Certain nations enjoy the perks of lawlessness maintained through the status quo on the High Seas.

Duke University has been at the forefront of High Seas governance and conservation discussions for the past decade. Over the last four years of negotiations, Duke researchers have contributed 15 manuscripts, book chapters, and policy briefs to help UN Delegations better understand the oceanography and ecology of the open-ocean, as well as the existing tools and technologies to monitor and manage human activities on the High Seas.

Various research labs within Duke have gained the trust of several UN governing bodies and delegates at these meetings, making our University one of the few leading academic institutions at the UN in this space. However, Duke’s contributions to this and other processes are not coordinated across schools. The emerging High Seas @ Duke initiative seeks to reinforce the vertical and horizontal integration across the Sanford School of Public Policy, The Law School, The Nicholas School of the Environment, and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. This collaboration within the University will create new avenues for policy discussions and new points of entry within the High Seas debate. High Seas @ Duke is what the University needs to continue to be the leading academic institution for the High Seas at the UN and beyond.