In what appears to be a significant improvement over its past position, the European Union (EU) has called this week for strong, precautionary measures to protect biodiversity in the high seas.
Speaking on behalf of the EU at a United Nations (UN) General Assembly working group on biodiversity in New York yesterday (15 February), the Head of the EU delegation, Dr. Gerhard Hafner of Austria, drew attention to several recently published reports and said, “the EU has come to this meeting with a clearly felt sense of urgency to address international cooperation on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in ABNJ [areas beyond national jurisdiction]” and pointed out that “science on biodiversity of marine ecosystems in [areas beyond national jurisdiction] may be poor, but that we do know enough to state that it is on one hand unique, diverse and significant, yet on the other hand extremely fragile and vulnerable.” Dr. Hafner drew particular attention to a working group of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which “recognized that the best available scientific information indicated that seamounts and cold-water coral reefs are the marine ecosystems under most severe threat”. The most immediate and serious threat to these ecosystems is bottom trawl fishing on the high seas. This was clearly recognized by Pacific Islands nations, the United States, Norway and many other delegations to the UN meeting this week in stating that the impact of destructive fishing practices on vulnerable marine ecosystems is the most urgent problem that the international community must resolve. Dr. Hafner made several references in his statement to the need for acting quickly, and taking a precautionary approach: “The EU views that evidence of actual destruction of ecosystems is overwhelming and that we know sufficient about growing human pressure on marine biodiversity in [areas beyond national jurisdiction] to warrant taking further steps on international cooperation and coordination for its conservation and sustainable use… The EU insists to submit to this working group, that – on the basis of the precautionary principle and on the basis of the current status of science – we have to act on both the implementation and governance gaps. We have a very impressive and authoritative information basis to warrant those actions.” “We feel that the ocean is to be seen as an integrated ecosystem and a critical component of the Earth’s regulatory system. In this context we also have to note the threat to marine biodiversity by human induced climate change.
Further studies may not delay our actions to fill both the implementation and governance gaps that the EU has mentioned before. Indeed the precautionary principle, in this context, refers to our obligation not to postpone action on the basis of the need for further detailed studies.” In previous UN meetings, the EU has advocated a more cautious and “case by case” approach when discussing measures needed to protect biodiversity on the high seas from “destructive” fishing practices, particularly bottom trawl fishing. However, the EU Statement this week appears to signal a major advance over its past position and should commit it to supporting strong action, including a moratorium on bottom trawl fishing on the high seas, when the UN General Assembly meets in September to negotiate international measures to protect seamounts, cold-water corals and other deep-sea ecosystems on the high seas from deep-sea fishing practices.