UN member states agree to negotiate high seas biodiversity pact

23 June 2015

The UN General Assembly last Friday adopted a new resolution to develop an international legally-binding instrument in order to better address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. The planned pact would sit under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

The move came after a dedicated UN working group wrapped up nearly nine years of talks in January by recommending countries take action to develop an agreement to better protect and manage the commercialisation of marine resources found in the high seas and the international seabed.

The group had been given a mandate at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to decide on the need to develop an international instrument on marine biodiversity under UNCLOS by September of this year. (See BioRes, 29 January 2015)

The high seas cover around 45 percent of the Earth’s surface, are home to a diverse array of marine wildlife, and deliver essential ecosystem services. The value of carbon stored by the high seas is thought to range between US$74-22 billion annually, based on the estimated economic costs of this additional carbon if released into the atmosphere, according to marine-expert group Global Ocean Commission. 

Commercialisation, conservation

Environmental and conservation groups largely reacted positively to last week’s formalisation of the January decision, although some also warned that complex and challenging negotiations now lie ahead.

“High Seas Alliance members applaud and welcome the adoption of this important resolution, though it is only the first step toward achieving a ‘wave of change’ in the way our ocean is governed,” read a press release from a dedicated advocacy group counting Birdlife International, Oceana, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) among its ranks.

Under UNCLOS, coastal states enjoy sovereign rights over the natural resources found in areas extending a maximum of 200 nautical miles from the coast, known formally as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Countries have struggled at the international level in the past to come to agreement on how to govern marine biodiversity beyond national EEZs.

Some nations – including Canada, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US – have expressed hesitation around whether legal gaps exist in ocean governance given other treaties and regional bodies involved in various aspects of marine policy cooperation. These countries, and others, have also raised questions around how a new multilateral agreement would interact with existing relevant legal instruments.

In this respect, the talks could potentially touch upon regional and international efforts to manage highly traded and commercially sensitive marine resources, such as various deep sea fisheries currently thought to be worth around US$16 billion in gross landed catch value per year. Some 30 existing fisheries management and advisory organisations are responsible for a range of stocks found in the high seas.

Mining for minerals and new sources of fossil fuels on the seabed could also increase in the future, according to some analysts, although seabed mineral mining is already covered by an existing implementing instrument under UNCLOS. 

Some experts have also suggested that clarity is required around the tricky topic of marine bioprospecting and the sharing of benefits derived from this.

No comprehensive international arrangement exists to govern marine bioprospecting, although other arrangements such as the Nagoya Protocol under the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) cover access and benefit sharing from genetic resources more generally. Some countries have sought clarity on the sharing of benefits derived from the commercialisation of products based on marine genetic resources.

Marine genetic resources are used as the basis for some 18,000 natural products in the lucrative pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. The number of products derived from the marine environment is also estimated to be growing at a rate of four percent per year.

Some experts suggest that technology developments and the promising potential of genetic material from marine animals for curing diseases such as cancer could spark further developments in this area in the future. Within this context, several stakeholders have called for sufficient regulation to ensure conservation of the marine environment, alongside its sustainable use.

Preparatory committee coming soon

Following January’s recommendations, the resolution calls for the establishment of a preparatory committee, tasked with making recommendations to the General Assembly on the elements of a draft text for the new oceans instrument.

The committee – open to all UN member states and parties to UNCLOS and headed by a presiding officer appointed by the UN Secretary General – will meet next year and in 2017 for at least two sessions of 10 working days respectively. A request is also made for the UN chief to establish a special voluntary trust fund in order to assist developing country delegates in attending the meetings.

Delegates are instructed to “exhaust every effort” to reach agreement by consensus on substantive matters on the governance of marine biological diversity on the high seas. However, elements where consensus was not reached may also be included in the recommendations of the preparatory committee to the General Assembly.

The UN’s main decision-making body will decide in 2018 on the convening and start date of an intergovernmental conference to elaborate the text of the final deal. 

The negotiations in the preparatory committee are tasked with examining a list of topics identified back in 2011 as possible elements for the new instrument. These include issues such as how to regulate the use of marine genetic resources (MGRs) in areas beyond national jurisdiction and how to share the benefits derived from these; the use of marine protected areas; environmental impact assessments; as well as capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology.

ICTSD reporting. 

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