Addressing the Challenges Confronting the Oceans

Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona

BEIJING (IDN) — I was the co-chair, along with Dr Liesbeth Lijnzaad of the Netherlands, of the United Nations ad hoc Working Group on Biological Diversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). Since handing over our conclusions and recommendations in 2015, a negotiating process has begun with a view to finalizing a Treaty on Biological Diversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, also referred to as a High Seas Treaty.

We are also dealing with this subject at a time when the world is nervously staring into the threatening abyss of a major global economic crisis which is demanding all our attention.

Economies have shrunk, growth has slowed and, in many cases, gone in to reverse, unemployment is rising, supply chains have been disrupted and the dreaded spectre of inflation is looming. A disruptive military confrontation has erupted in Europe.

The supply of food and energy is causing global concern, with yawning hunger becoming a chilling concern.  The IMF expects the global growth to slump to 3.6%. But China will continue to grow at around 4.4%. 

This crisis is threatening to overwhelm many of us. It is not only the poor who are most threatened, relatively wealthy countries are also affected. 69–70 countries are seriously in trouble at this point and, according to the IMF, 37 may require bailouts. The situation has been exacerbated by the unforgiving and vicious hand of the COVID–19 pandemic—which has certainly taken its bitter toll, not only in terms of human life and health, but also on the economies of many countries.

We are approaching the UN Ocean Conference on the conservation and sustainable utilisation of marine diversity against this difficult and challenging background.  The economic crisis is distracting us, the world, from other pressing demands.

The Oceans cover 71 % of the globe. Over 3 billion people depend on the oceans, directly and indirectly, for their livelihood. There is more biological diversity in a bucket of seawater than in hectares and hectares of dry land. Life began in the ocean and the ocean continues to support life.

We depend on the ocean for more things than we can imagine. Not only by being the biggest sink for carbon dioxide, but the ocean also provides the protein intake for more than 50% of the world’s population, especially in the poorer countries.

But today the oceans are in distress. The over-exploitation of fishing grounds has brought many species of marine life to the brink of extinction. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has been a problem and 33% of fish species are under serious threat.

Some fisheries have collapsed. (eg. the once prolific cod fishery of New Foundland and the anchovy fishery of Peru). Ocean acidification has increased. The oceans have become warmer, contributing to coral bleach, migration of fish away from usual habitats, and pollution, especially with massive quantities of plastics accumulating in the high seas. Global warming is causing sea-level rise, threatening low-lying coastal areas and small island states.

Even areas of the high seas, historically teeming with life, are now vulnerable to growing threats, including pollution, over-exploitation, and the impacts already visible of climate change.

The increasing demand for marine resources in the coming decades—for food, minerals and biotechnology—threatens to exacerbate this problem. While there have been extensive scientific explorations of the surface water of the high seas, the deep sea i.e. below 200 meters of the surface has hardly been studied.

In this circumstance, it has become our sacred duty to ensure that the oceans are protected and conserved. Today we need to assign more areas in the oceans to be protected because they also constitute the spawning grounds for endless varieties of ocean life. They are the ocean’s nurseries. These are the areas that will help the oceans to recuperate and rejuvenate.

Ocean-based genetic resources already provide raw materials for a large number of drugs, including cancer treatment drugs. Increasingly, more and more patents are based on ocean genetic resources.

There are other drugs that are likely to be discovered as science learns more and understands the oceans better. 84% of patents based on marine genetic resources are owned by private companies. Public and private universities accounted for another 12%, while entities such as governmental bodies, individuals, hospitals, and non-profit research institutes registered the remaining 4%.

The world’s largest chemical manufacturer, the German BASF, held nearly 47% of the patent sequences. The second and third largest companies were based in Japan and the US, respectively. They are likely to resist any effort to regulate their activities.

Humanity has made efforts in recent times to introduce some regulation to human activity relating to the oceans. In addition to the Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (sometimes referred to as the Constitution of the Oceans) and its associated implementing agreements, the 1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement and the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI, the international community has begun to negotiate a further implementing agreement on the high seas.

The UN GA adopted resolution 72/249 on 24 December 24, 2017, and convened an Intergovernmental Conference, under the auspices of the United Nations, to consider the recommendations of the Preparatory Committee established by resolution 69/292 of 19 June 2015 to identify the elements and to elaborate the text of an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

The Preparatory Committee had before it the report of the UN Ad Hoc Working Group on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction co-chaired by Dr Palitha Kohona of Sri Lanka (currently Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China) and Judge Dr Liesbeth Lijnzaad (now a Judge of the Law of the Sea Tribunal). 61% of the oceans lie beyond national jurisdiction.

The Committee held a three-day organizational meeting in New York, in April 2018, to discuss organizational matters, including the process for the preparation of the zero draft of the instrument. Four sessions have been convened so far.

A fifth session of the Conference is being convened from 15 to 26 August 2022 pursuant to General Assembly resolution 76/564 (available as A/76/L.46).

The proposed “BBNJ Treaty”, the “Treaty of the High Seas”, will be an international agreement and will fall within the framework of the United Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

It will seek to achieve more holistic management of high seas activities, which is expected to better balance the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources and also address the issue of benefits sharing.

There have been some welcome developments in the negotiations. The U.S. for example has recognized a high seas treaty as a vital part of 30×30. There is growing recognition that the high seas must be part of the solution to protect at least 30% of our global oceans by 2030, the SDG target year.

The United States delegate Monica Medina has said that “the conclusion of a strong and effective BBNJ agreement is a priority for the United States.” Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced that a coalition of 40+ countries was committed to securing an ambitious high seas treaty in 2022.

A high seas treaty must also recognize the vital role of fish in marine ecosystems. 86% of high seas fishing is done by only five countries and other entities: China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Protected MPAs have been shown to benefit fish stocks. Sustainable seafood suppliers and retailers have been supportive of a strong high seas treaty.

Benefit-sharing, which has caused resistance among the technologically advanced nations, could be approached in a practical manner.  Whether mandatory or voluntary, benefit-sharing measures could be carried out on a monetary and/or non-monetary basis, and the overarching principles governing the future international legally binding instrument, in particular, the common heritage of humankind and the freedom of the high seas could be covered.

As the global economic crisis intensifies, many financial mechanisms are being explored, in particular, to assist the poorer countries. I would like to suggest that some of these new financial resources be allocated for ocean-related activities of developing countries.

They could be used for improved and sustainable fishing, contributing to reducing poverty, generating employment and conserving biological diversity, better training, assisting with creating better job opportunities and improving livelihoods, sustainable aquaculture, ensuring sustainable food supplies, and better storage and marketing and the transfer of technology. 

At least the recovery from the economic crisis, from which we will recover sooner than later, could be utilized to assist the ocean and those who depend on the ocean. We need to turn this crisis into an opportunity that will serve humanity well in the future.

I also recall the suggestion, that an equitable part of the wealth that will be generated by exploiting ocean biodiversity could be shared equitably with the developing world based on the concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind. This concept has been around for some time now.

The Common Heritage of Mankind principle, consolidated in the context of the Law of the Sea Convention, recognizes that users must not appropriate the resources of the deep seas; the resources must remain accessible to all, and the benefits of exploitation must be shared equitably.

The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 (there are 196 parties) have committed themselves to the “fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources”. The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from Their Utilization, of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010, takes the concept forward.

To borrow from the Chinese saying, “If you give a man a fish, he will live for a day; But if you teach him to fish, you give him a life”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 June 2022]

Photo: Underwater Seascapes, Anders Nyberg

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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