High hopes to protect the high seas as talks on UN treaty begin

The first round of talks to establish a UN treaty to regulate the high seas ended with high hopes Friday as countries and civil society participants were optimistic an agreement to govern the use of two-thirds of the ocean was within reach.

The decision to start negotiations came after a decade of ongoing conversation on the need for an international agreement to regulate the high seas, which fall outside of national jurisdictions and cover half of the planet's surface.

Currently, there is only a patchwork of international, regional and sectoral agreements, including legislation regulating fishing, shipping and seabed mining on the high seas.

However, there is no internationally recognized system to comprehensively govern the use of the ocean beyond territorial waters - including to designate marine protected areas.

The treaty would allow the creation of large protected areas, which are essential to strengthen the resilience of the ocean already weakened by the effects of climate change and acidification, and to manage different human activities in an integrated way.

"[There's] growing awareness that technology being what it is today, the high seas are becoming more and more accessible and so the potential for human impact is becoming greater," said Elizabeth Wilson, director of International Ocean Policy at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"I think people started realizing that it was time to address this problem and try to develop a more comprehensive system."

She noted that technology now enables people to use the high seas to launch rockets, mount solar panels or harvest energy from waves, activities that are currently unregulated.

Wilson, who took part in the first meeting of the treaty preparatory committee, said the meeting was "very productive" as countries came prepared to discuss ideas and key issues the treaty will have to tackle.

"I think we're off to a very solid start," Wilson said.

Lisa Speer, director of the International Oceans Programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental non-profit organization, said she was also encouraged to see the countries' commitment to establishing a treaty.

Speer, who has been working for a decade to create a treaty, said participants would like to see the document's language finalized by next year.

However, to get to that point, negotiators will have to iron out issues such as the use of marine genetic resources, which are ocean organisms that could be of value to humans; the mechanism for establishing marine protected areas; and deciding who completes environmental assessments of the high seas.

"I don't see any showstoppers at this point," Speer said.

"All of it seems doable to me, which doesn't mean it will be a trip to the park, but I do think we'll get there."

Eden Charles, who chairs the preparatory committee and is also UN ambassador from Trinidad and Tobago, told reporters before the meeting that the treaty will not undermine existing legal frameworks, including those on fishing and mining.

"We're not seeking to reinvent the wheel," Charles said.

"If there is a legal regime which addresses a particular aspect of the subject matter in question, we're not going to interfere with that."

Negotiations will continue at the preparatory committee's second meeting in September and two further meetings in 2017.

Last update: Sat, 09/04/2016 - 12:37
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