The conservation toolkit on the table at high-seas treaty talks

With the conservation of more than half the world’s oceans at stake, negotiations resume February 20 on a UN treaty to protect marine zones and assess environmental impacts on vast ocean areas that belong to no one.

Here are some of the key issues at stake:

– Exploiting while conserving –
Under a mandate agreed on by the United Nations General Assembly in 2017 after more than 10 years of talks, the treaty is meant to provide for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas under no nation’s control — an area covering more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans.

A draft text says the treaty will apply to the high seas — those parts of the oceans outside nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ’s), which reach up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from coastlines — as well as seabeds and subsoil.

This would allow in principle for measures to apply to mining and fishing activities.

– Divided responsibility –
But the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP, comprising all signatory states) will also have to wrangle with regional and international organizations that hold sway over parts of the oceans.

Primary among those are regional fishing organizations and the International Seabed Authority, which issues licenses for exploring underseas mining resources and possibly for tapping into them in limited areas.

– Marine protected areas –
A key “tool” under discussion is the creation of marine protected areas, which now exist mainly in territorial waters.

Depending on what member states propose, the COP would create these sanctuaries in areas with vulnerable and unique ecological attributes where species are endangered.

But the crucial question of exactly how these areas are to be decided remains to be resolved.

As in other COPs, like the one focused on climate issues, decisions are generally reached by consensus.

But the high-seas treaty draft text allows for a majority of votes to create protected areas, preventing a single country or small group of nations from blocking the will of a majority.

The treaty does not specify how protective measures will be enforced over vast and remote areas of ocean. Some experts say satellites can be used to spot infractions.

The draft says each state would be responsible for activities over which it holds jurisdiction even in international waters.

– Resource sharing –
In the high seas, countries and entities under their jurisdiction will be allowed to collect animal, vegetable or microbial matter whose genetic material might prove useful, even commercially — for example, pharmaceutical companies hoping to discover marine molecules with curative properties.

To provide a portion of the marine wealth to countries unable to conduct expensive research, the treaty would provide for sharing out benefits.

Exactly how that would work, however, remains a bone of contention between wealthy and poorer nations.

The draft suggests an initial redistribution of two percent — eventually rising to eight percent — of future sales of products based on the oceans’ genetic resources. Still, no agreement has been reached.

More generally, the draft calls for the transfer of marine technologies to developing countries and a strengthening of their research capacities.

It would also establish an “open-access platform” for information sharing.

– Assessing impacts –
The treaty would require signatories to assess the environmental impacts of planned activities before they are authorized, but exactly how that would be done remains far from clear.

For non-governmental groups, this will be a key determinant of the robustness of the final treaty.

Among the questions: Which activities would have to be assessed, just those in the high seas or also those in national waters that could impact the high seas?

Would assessments be conducted systematically or only when a major impact is expected? And who would decide whether an activity can be authorized, the COP or the country with authority over the entity hoping to carry out the activity?

– A ‘universal’ treaty? –
The oceans’ defenders stress that to be effective, the treaty must be “universal,” supported by the greatest possible number of countries.

But it could take effect once 30 or 60 countries have ratified it — a number yet to be decided. (AFP)