The High Seas Provide an Opportunity for Canadian Leadership

Date: April 13, 2022
Purple "dinner plate" jellyfish.

Source: Policy Options

Author: Susanna Fuller, Catherine Coumans, Nicole Zanesco

From the Atlantic, across the Arctic, to the Pacific, Canadians and Indigenous peoples rely on the ocean for food, income and connection to our cultures and histories. But the ocean does not stop at the boundary demarcating our national waters, and neither do the species that thrive there.

Fish, eels, whales, turtles, seabirds and myriad other ocean flora and fauna follow currents, winds, and upwellings, heedless of human-imposed boundaries. Water, nutrients and animals move in a constant, regenerative cycle from deep to shallow and from high seas to coastal areas. Healthy waters in areas beyond national jurisdiction are vital for many species crucial to our coastal ecosystems. Despite their importance, the high seas – which cover almost 50 per cent of the planet – are at risk from emerging industries and significant gaps in governance. This is especially true as Canadian companies move to exploit resources through deep sea mining.

In the past, Canada has played an important and often a leadership role in efforts to govern the high seas with the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, to the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement, and most recently the Central Arctic Ocean Agreement. Moreover, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just taken an important position co-chairing the Sustainable Development Goals Advocates Group at the invitation of the UN Secretary General. This sends an important signal that Canada’s guidance is respected.

However, there are two areas of high seas governance where this leadership has been lacking: The United Nations treaty for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) negotiations and at the International Seabed Authority (ISA). In the last 15 years of efforts to reach agreement on a new UN BBNJ treaty, Canada has taken a “big tent” approach, rather than an ambitious position on the need for strong measures to protect biodiversity on the high seas. Canada has also been largely absent from efforts to protect deep seabed habitats from mining through the International Seabed Authority.

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