A rare chance to help our oceans

Victoria University of Wellington's Joanna Mossop argues that a proposed UN treaty to protect oceans will be vital in creating new legal obligations

The United Nations General Assembly is this week expected to green-light negotiations for a new international treaty focused on protecting marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

This is a rare opportunity to improve our governance of the world’s oceans.

Scientists and non-governmental organisations have been calling for the international community to take steps to protect the marine environment for many years. Pressure on the marine environment has been building with the growth of fishing in deeper parts of the ocean, higher levels of pollution and expanding interest in mineral and hydrocarbon resources. The problem is that many activities on the high seas are either not regulated at all or not regulated well enough. On the high seas, vessels must observe the laws of the state to which they are registered. However, many countries have little motivation to sign up to international organisations designed to protect the ocean, or to impose any environmental regulations. The result is declining fish stocks, rising marine pollution and the destruction of marine ecosystems.

The proposed treaty attempts to do two things.

First, it will create processes such as environmental impact assessment of activities on the high seas, to try to ensure countries better regulate the impacts of their vessels. Negotiators also hope to find ways to encourage the creation of marine-protected areas on the high seas.

Second, the international community is trying to agree on legal principles that will apply to the use of marine genetic resources. These are living organisms that are taken from the ocean in order to use for biotechnology purposes. For example, some cancer drugs are derived from sponges found on the sea floor. At the moment, developing countries are arguing that the benefits of exploiting marine genetic resources from areas beyond national jurisdiction should be shared among all nations. This would be similar to the regime that applies to mineral resources on the deep seabed. On the other hand, many states argue that such organisms can be used by whoever collects them and there is no obligation to share the benefits. This argument is likely to be difficult to resolve.

There are other challenges to be resolved before a treaty can be concluded. For example, one question facing the negotiators is whether and how the treaty will apply to activities such as fishing that are already controlled by existing international organisations, or whether it will only apply to unregulated activities. Taking the second approach would limit the scope of the treaty considerably. The question of the interaction between existing regimes and the new treaty will be one of the harder issues to solve.

New Zealand is taking a leading role in the process. So far, there have been four preparatory meetings to discuss the possible treaty and New Zealand officials chaired two of the informal working groups convened to discuss the key issues. New Zealand is also fully supporting the draft General Assembly resolution that is expected to kick off the negotiations.

The initial timetable for the negotiations sets up a series of meetings over the next two years. It is unlikely all the difficult issues will be resolved in that time, even though there have been discussions about a possible treaty at the United Nations for over a decade. The oceans have never been under such pressure from human impacts. Securing a new treaty will be vital in creating new legal obligations as well as coordinating the efforts of a huge range of sectoral international organisations.

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