High time for The High Seas – the wild, Wild West of the Oceans

Date: February 11, 2005

When a nuclear powered submarine owned by a leading world power crashes into a huge undersea mountain that didn’t appear on any maps, you have to wonder how much we really know about the deep, dark depths of our planet’s oceans.

Incredibly, there are more maps of the moon than there are of the deep seabed. George Bush wants to increase NASA’s budget by US$1 billion for his mission to find life on Mars (which has a total cost of about US$12 billion) when we have not yet discovered the extent of life in our own oceans – and the US nuclear sub that crashed into a seamount last month provides even more evidence of just how little we know. For most of the high seas, very little is known about the extent or number of species that inhabit the deep dark depths of the oceans. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of seamount ecosystems occur across the world’s oceans, yet less than 50 have been comprehensively studied. However, it is clear from available research that there are vast numbers of species in these ecosystems that we know absolutely nothing about – there are some that have yet to be discovered. So we certainly don’t know what role they play within ocean ecosystems. Currently there are a relatively small number of ships, flagged to a dozen or so wealthy, mainly OECD countries that are destroying high seas biodiversity that could potentially offer insights into disease processes and their cures, and even provide answers to questions about the origins of life on our planet. Bottom trawling has been identified as one of the most destructive fishing practices by the international community, including over 1000 deep-sea scientists who released a statement at the CBD COP 7 outlining their concern over this issue. Bottom trawlers drag large nets fitted with heavy chains and steel plates across the ocean floor, scooping up everything in their path. They effectively strip mine these areas, destroying their inhabitants even before scientists have had the opportunity to understand and explain their roles in our planet’s functioning. Once again, a small group of ‘haves’ are the first to unsustainably exploit global biodiversity. This time, however, they are profiting from the largest single area that is recognised as the common heritage of humankind: the High Seas. In so doing, they are destroying deep-sea biological diversity that is as yet unknown and unexplored. Ten years ago, the focus of oceans policy negotiators was on ways to regulate activities and secure sovereignty over waters adjacent to coastal states. Today areas “beyond national jurisdiction” are starting to receive more attention in the political arena, and it is being recognised that the protection of the high seas is currently a huge gap in the global representative protected area system. Greenpeace as part of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and a number of countries have been calling for a United Nations General Assembly moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. This temporary ban would provide the space to gather information about these deep-sea ecosystems, and to then use it to inform the policy making process to ensure that the deep sea does not follow the path of the world’s other fisheries. In upcoming CBD meetings (Ad Hoc Working Group on Protected Areas in June and SBSTTA 11), countries will be considering high seas marine protected areas as well as the conservation and sustainable use of deep seabed genetic resources beyond national jurisdiction. CBD Parties must send a strong signal to the UNGA underlining the call in Decision VII/5 for states and the United Nations to take measures to protect deep sea biodiversity, and supporting the call for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling as a step towards improving oceans governance, thereby enabling scientists to further explore this weird and wonderful underwater world before its biodiversity has been destroyed. It is high time that the high seas received more attention, and that countries take their responsibilities as the current stewards of this global commons seriously. The High Seas accounts for over 2/3 of the world’s seas and oceans, and biodiversity in these regions is as much under threat as within areas of national jurisdiction. To not recognise this would effectively ignore the fact that High Seas marine areas make up an integral part of the world’s oceans and that as a recognised part of the global commons, require comprehensive joint-action by states to conserve and protect its biodiversity.

Notes: This article by Nathalie Rey, political advisor to Greenpeace International, was published in Volume 11, Issue 3 of ECO (pdf, See page 4).

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