The high seas, large expanses of water that lie outside the exclusive economic zones of a country, make up roughly two-thirds of the world’s oceans and serve as pivotal corridors for highly migratory species. No single country governs them because they exist in international waters, and due to their immense size, enforcement of overfishing and other illegal activities is a persistent problem.
Coming into force in 1994, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) set out to define nations’ rights and responsibilities regarding responsible resource use on the high seas. This international agreement, ratified by more than 160 nations today, was an important step in managing these critical areas. However, many aspects of UNCLOS must be updated to address the current concerns on the high seas.
Currently, government officials, NGOs, academics, and world leaders are convening in New York City at the United Nations headquarters to discuss ways to improve governance on the high seas and ensure our world’s fisheries are sustainable. More importantly, these actors are expected to make recommendations on specific management updates to UNCLOS, including the creation of a network of high seas marine protected areas to protect valuable fisheries, whales, and other marine species.
Marine protected areas provide a host of ecological benefits. Along with providing a buffer against climate change, they allow fish populations to rebound since commercial and recreational fishing is prohibited within their borders. Implementation is critical to ensure healthy fish populations, resulting in healthier ecosystems, food security, and economic opportunities for all nations.
Oceans 5, an international funder’s collaborative dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans and constraining overfishing, has undertaken numerous projects to implement marine protected areas throughout the world. In the past year alone, they have helped designate over 1.5 million square kilometers of ocean as marine protected areas, most notably in the Arctic, the eastern Pacific Ocean, and along the high seas. Their support of the Global Ocean Commission led to the creation of a strategic action plan devoted to ocean recovery.
Recently Oceans 5 work has led to improved seafood traceability in the United States and the initiation of formal international negotiations to conserve high seas biodiversity through an implementing agreement to the Law of the Sea. Their grant to the Global Oceans Commission created new high-level voices for conservation. Commissioners have spoken on behalf of several Oceans 5 priorities including illegal fishing, Antarctic MPAs and high seas protection, and this important work will continue in partnership with Virgin’s Oceans Unite program.
In the African region, Oceans 5 was instrumental in the creation of the second largest marine reserve in the Indian Ocean following the historic Seychelles debt-for-nature swap, which forgave a significant portion of the country’s debt in exchange for an expansive chain of marine protected areas in one of the most biodiverse marine habitats on Earth.
In the South Pacific, as a result of an Oceans 5 grant supporting community consultation in the Cook Islands, an existing marine reserve was doubled from a 1.1million square kilometer area in the southern portion of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to the entire 2.2 million square kilometers.
In Latin America, the completion of a new radar facility in Cocos Island, Costa Rica, has fostered great interest and collaboration among many government institutions, resulting in a more than 50/50 investment match by the Costa Rican government to date. And in Nicaragua, an MPA proposal in San Juan del Sur now has significant community and political support and designation seems likely by the end of 2017.
In North America, Oceans 5 supports an initiative working alongside the Inuit communities to create a network of marine reserves between Canada and Greenland in Canada’s Northwest Passage, home to thousands of Inuit living in ancient communities who have rich spiritual connections to the land and sea. The Oceans 5 grant supports the Northwest Passage Arctic Marine Habitat Initiative in the creation of a network of marine protected areas from the Beaufort Sea to Baffin Bay. These areas were identified by Inuit to sustain the Arctic fish, bird and mammals upon which they rely. This innovative project will help shape the century ahead, as melting sea ice opens this once ice-locked region into a productive economic area.
With the health of our oceans under siege from climate change and overfishing, protection of the high seas is paramount. Oceans 5 has emerged as a leader in marine conservation.