Marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions: new international treaty negotiation

A review of the potential environmental impacts of the international treaty negotiation on marine biodiversity.

This agreement seeks to protect marine biodiversity by improving governance structures of the open seas, in areas beyond any country’s jurisdiction.

In the last decade there has been a loss of marine biodiversity due to human activities including climate change and growing commercial interest in previously unexplored areas, including areas beyond national jurisdiction. From an economic and socio-economic view, marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction are resources shared by all States. Access to those resources is open to everyone yet there are limited incentives to conserve and sustainably manage those resources.

Marine ecosystems and biodiversity provide resources needed for a healthy environment and human well-being. It is estimated that marine biodiversity provides a third of the Earth’s oxygen and helps control the global climate. It is also a source of food for humans and helps create products, including medication. Marine ecosystems and biodiversity provide a means of recreation, and opportunities for research and education. Millions of people rely on marine resources and biodiversity for their livelihood, through employment in fishing or tourism.

However, the current global and regional governance framework does not properly address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions. The current regulations are not consistent or clear, resulting in lower environmental quality in the high seas.

On June 19, 2015, the United Nations General Assembly began the process for an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. A Preparatory Committee has been created to make recommendations to the General Assembly on the components of a draft text of an international legally binding instrument.

The potential new Treaty is focused on conservation and sustainable use of the environment, and would include four main elements:

  • marine genetic resources
  • environmental impact assessment
  • area-based management tools, including marine protected areas
  • capacity building and technology transfer

Negotiations of a new treaty should result in improved regimes and governance structures for the open seas. It should lead to better protection for migratory birds and polar bears, marine endangered species, and creation of high seas marine conservation areas.

The Treaty should result in a number of environmental benefits:

  • migratory bird management in the high seas should allow effective resource management, including for migratory birds for their long term conservation
  • polar bear management in the high seas should support the management regime set up by range states (US, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia) and strengthen the long term conservation of this species
  • Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) should complement CITES efforts to ensure conservation of high seas biodiversity
  • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) should ensure that ecologically and biologically sensitive areas are the basis for the creation of high seas marine protected areas; and  ensure that the open oceans are managed for conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and the equitable sharing of benefits
  • conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna should make sure that work on identifying sensitive areas in the Arctic Ocean is used for creating marine conservation areas

The Treaty would help human health and support sustainable economic growth. It would make a basis for sustainability through internationally agreed rules, standards, guidance and obligations to support sustainable resource management systems in the open seas.

Canada supports conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions. The Canadian framework negotiating mandate gives guiding principles and approaches to negotiations, including:

  • maintain UNCLOS as the overall framework for the new treaty
  • promote coherence and consistency between instruments, mechanisms and bodies
  • respect for current treaties and bodies, such as the Convention on Biodiversity and the Arctic Council
  • support the precautionary approach, ecosystem approach, and use of best-available science
  • support good governance and a practical, workable treaty

The strategic environmental assessment determined that the proposed approach may have positive conservation effects for the ecosystems in the high seas and those within jurisdictions. By advancing the negotiating principles, Canada would help the conservation and sustainable use of marine natural resources.

The proposal supports the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) 2016 to 2019 goal of “Healthy coasts and oceans” to support healthy, resilient and productive ecosystems. Internationally, the proposal also supports the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 14, “Life below water”.  Protecting coasts and oceans relates to other areas covered by the FSDS, including climate change and biodiversity:

  • marine and coastal areas provide habitat that species at risk need to recover and thrive
  • coastal and marine ecosystems capture and store carbon and contribute to climate resilience
  • marine protected areas and national marine conservation areas provide opportunities to connect with nature

The proposal will help Canada’s international efforts to combat climate change by improving international regimes for the protection and management of the oceans which help regulate the global ecosystem.

Canada’s performance during negotiations will be measured by its engagement in negotiating sessions and the amount to which the final treaty reflects Canadian priorities and objectives.

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