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A treaty for the high seas...

History, negotiations, implications... behind the scenes with AtlantECO

BBNJ negotiations for the treaty in New York. © André Abreu

Our 37th episode of the podcast is dedicated to the High Seas Treaty, which was the focus of intense discussions during the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) a couple of weeks ago. The treaty deals with high seas, those regions of the ocean which lie outside of national boundaries and for which, up to now, there were essentially no regulations, and especially very little enforcement of what regulations there were; and this in terms of navigation, fishing, research or use of the marine resources from these regions for example. So this treaty establishes a framework for the legal mechanism to protect the ocean and marine biodiversity, including in support of the pledge to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 which was made during the UN biodiversity conference in December 2022.

To talk about this in more detail and gain a better understanding, we had two guests on the show: Andre Abreu from the Tara Ocean Foundation in France and Hugo Sarmento from the Federal University of São Carlos in Brazil.

Andre Abreu, from the Tara Ocean Foundation.

André provided a summary of the treaty’s history and background, telling us that when states approved the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, there was no consideration of the issues that are today threatening biodiversity in the sea and high seas. From 2010, delegations started to think about a complementary treaty, a new instrument, to complete the UNDOS by addressing issues linked to sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction. During the Rio+20 conference, a package in four parts was presented, it addressed issues of conservation and impact assessment of activities, but also the management of MGRs, Marine Genetic Resources. This package was approved in the Rio+20 conference and thereafter followed years of negotiations in the UN, starting with what we call informal negotiations and then going to an intergovernmental conference in 2017. So more than 12 years have been spent discussing this instrument and these issues. And it's not easy because it's a binding agreement. Once ratified, it becomes an instrument of international law.

The Tara Ocean Foundation, as an observer for the United Nations Economic and Scientific Council, has been involved in the negotiations since 2012 and their role has been crucial in making a link between the UN delegates and the scientific community, bridging a gap between science and policy. Not an easy task as delegates are usually jurists who are not familiar with the science which underpins this type of decisions. And importantly, these discussions enabled scientists to highlight issues linked to microbiomes, genomics, and other such aspects which were not as well considered as the more commonly discussed aspects linked to to fish, dolphins, sharks, or corals for example.

Hugo Sarmento, from the Federal University of São Carlos

So what does the treaty mean for people conducting research in the high seas?

Hugo was there to tell us about this. He mentioned that at the moment, there are no laws for the high seas. This means that for example, those who have the means and resources to do so, can go to these regions, or they can look through the data available on open databases and potentially identify promising compounds, deposit patents on them, develop commercial products and reap massive profits from their sales… with no compensation made to anyone whatsoever. With the treaty in place, this will no longer be the case, once in place, if a profit is made from genetic resources coming from the ocean, then a percentage of that money will go into funds to support research. This is because in the treaty, resources from the high seas are considered resources for humanity.

Because of its abundant biodiversity and history of biospiracy, Brazil was well placed to provide advice, guidance and recommendation when it came to managing the genetic resources, applying their experience and knowledge gained from the Amazon Forest to the genetic resources in the ocean. This is where Hugo played his part, talking with the ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brazil to provide his scientific expertise on marine genetic resources.

When agreements were reached late into the night of the 4th of March 2023, it felt like a great victory after years of work! The high seas treaty was accepted, and with it, measures to protect the ocean and its resources.

It has to be noted that the text will have to be translated into 7 languages before it can be proposed for ratification, and for it to come into force, it will need ratification by 60 nations. Let’s hope this happens sooner rather than later!

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