The high seas make up 40% of the earth’s surface, 64% of the surface of the ocean and 95% of its volume, says the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). As no one nation manages it, these areas are suffering from the tragedy of the commons. During the past few years, several species of tuna, marine biodiversity and the marine ecosystem have become more vulnerable. What has led to this situation?
The high seas represent a large stock of fish and biodiversity for the planet, but they are a kind of Wild West with no rules or restrictions.
This is why industrial activities and harmful fishing methods can be practised there. To describe the crucial role of the high seas and the current situation, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has published a short video:
Keep in mind the urgency of the deepening ocean crisis
For Sylvia Earle, the famous American marine biologist and explorer, ‘a new high seas biodiversity agreement, based on the precautionary principle and ecosystem approach, is necessary for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the high seas.’ She and a group of scientists published an Open Letter in January on the need for a high seas biodiversity agreement. In this document, they explained the situation:
‘The international waters of the high seas, and the seabed below, include some of the most environmentally important, critically threatened and least protected ecosystems on the planet. Amounting to 64% of the ocean and covering nearly 50% of the surface of the Earth, the high seas provide a range of ecosystem services, from driving weather systems and modulating the climate to the production of a high percentage of the oxygen we breathe – services that are essential to us all. Home to unique deep sea species and ecosystems, and criss-crossed by the migratory corridors of the great ocean wanderers, such as sharks, whales, sea turtles, tunas and seabirds, the high seas are full of life that needs protection.’
Achieve something historic
Without a clear, strict agreement on the exploitation of high seas, human activities will grow and eventually destroy the ecosystem. International scientists have supported solutions in an Open Letter. ‘We, the undersigned scientists, believe that a new high seas biodiversity agreement, based on the precautionary principle and ecosystem approach, is necessary for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the high seas (…) Recent scientific studies have provided clear evidence of the benefits and critical importance of remote, large-scale marine reserves in the open ocean. Such areas not only preserve fish stocks, and protect vulnerable ecosystems, but also provide a baseline for understanding the changes that climate change and human pressures are causing to the ocean as a whole.’
The UN has now decided to work on full recommendations for a global ocean law. Associations have been proactive about the issues. Lisa Speer of the member organisations’ Natural Resource Defence Council says, ‘We are encouraged by how strongly the majority of states have fought to protect the high seas. That gives us the greatest hope that, ultimately, we will achieve something historic.’ Sofia Tsenikli of Greenpeace said ‘The UN negotiators have the public on their side. We ask them to keep in mind the urgency of the deepening ocean crisis. Scientists warn there is simply no time to waste if we are to avoid irreversible damage’.
Eight months before COP21*, defenders of the high seas hope that United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris, France in December 2015 will help them in their fight against the ocean crisis.
*COP 21 is the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Photos © Sphinx Wang / shutterstock