Nature and Biodiversity

Why an international treaty for the high seas is crucial to biodiversity 

How can the high seas be protected? Image: UNSPLASH/Vanessa

Tom Pickerell
Global Director, Ocean Program, Head of the Secretariat for the High-Level Panel, World Resources Institute
Janine Felson
Research Fellow , Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute
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  • The high seas are largely unexplored, vastly deep, and teeming with marine life. Yet, there are outside of any country's jurisdiction.
  • At the same time, they are under increasing threat from overfishing, mining, climate change, and pollution. Only around 1% are currently protected and, due to the lack of clear rules and effective enforcement, are notoriously difficult to manage.
  • Fortunately, nations across the world are working on creating an international legally-binding treaty at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) to manage shared marine biodiversity in the high seas.

Ahead of a major United Nations (UN) conference on biodiversity seafood businesses have published a joint position on Marine Biodiversity of areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) citing that although the supply chain rarely takes a stance on this topic, ‘biodiversity is everyone’s business’.

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An international treaty to manage the high seas

Marine Biodiversity of areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) refers to the marine life found in the high seas, and is known to be a murky and complex topic. The so-callled high seas encompass all areas that lie beyond national waters - specifically, they are outside of the exclusive economic zone of any country, and equate to almost ½ of the Earth’s surface. The high seas are largely unexplored, vastly deep, and teeming with marine life. At the same time, they are under increasing threat from overfishing, mining, climate change, and pollution. Only around 1% are currently protected and - due to the lack of clear rules and effective enforcement that follows as well as persisting governance gaps - the high seas are notoriously difficult to manage and often subject to contention.

Fortunately, nations across the world are working on creating an international legally-binding treaty to manage shared marine biodiversity in the high seas. The fourth session of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on an international legally binding instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) will take place in early March 2022, after being postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This conference aims to agree an international legally binding instrument on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Involving all stakeholders

Until now, seafood supply chain companies have rarely offered positions on this issue. But in advance of this critical meeting, a coalition of retailers and suppliers, though usually market competitors, have joined forces to publish a joint position.

The voice of the supply chain tends to focus on seafood matters rather than biodiversity, however all seafood is part of a wider ecosystem. The health of this ecosystem is integral to the sustainability of seafood for present and future generations.

Under this joint position, which includes every single UK supermarket along with nearly 50 other supply chain companies, signatories recognise commercial fisheries as the largest direct driver of biodiversity decline in the high seas and call for the increased protection of these areas. They ask for governments to conclude a robust global treaty as soon as possible, including provision of marine protected areas. This is the first ever public effort by members of the seafood sector to contribute to the BBNJ process in the over 15 years of negotiations.

Sustainability an urgent matter for all

As mounting pressures and impacts from human-induced climate change and biodiversity loss fundamentally alter the ocean, its sustainability is a matter of urgent priority for all. It was Paul Polman, ex-CEO of brand giant Unilever, who said, “Sustainability makes good business sense, and we’re all on the same team at the end of the day.” Competitors working together and taking ownership of social and environmental impacts makes it possible to achieve real, transformative change that no single group could achieve alone.

As well as profitable seafood supply chains, the statement signatories want to source from healthy and sustainable fisheries, which are directly linked to a healthy marine ecosystem. This joint position demonstrates how these major companies are thinking about the bigger picture, stepping forward to make noise and calling on governments for action. Because after all, biodiversity is everyone’s business.

Giles Bolton, responsible sourcing director at Tesco, said:

“We are committed to sourcing from healthy marine ecosystems, however, currently there’s no robust global conservation framework for fishing in areas beyond national jurisdiction, or the High Seas. We are pleased a strong common position on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions (BBNJ) has been established, and call on governments to accelerate action for a Robust High Seas Treaty, including a 30x30 commitment for a network of Marine Protected Areas."

In January, Friends of Ocean Action released a statement highlighting critical opportunities for ambitious ocean action in 2022. One of the key events listed is the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction. Read the statement here.

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