Benefits to be shared in a free and equitable manner By Malaka Rodrigo  The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and each country is given the right to manage an area of oceans extending 200 nautical miles (about 370km) from the shore which is known as the ‘Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)’. [...]


Lanka hails historic UN deal to protect high seas resources


  • Benefits to be shared in a free and equitable manner

By Malaka Rodrigo 

The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and each country is given the right to manage an area of oceans extending 200 nautical miles (about 370km) from the shore which is known as the ‘Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)’.

The rest of the oceans are called ‘High Seas’ or international waters. As all countries have the right to fish on the high seas, marine life there becomes particularly vulnerable to unchecked exploitation.

According to the Global Red List of Threatened Species published by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than 1,550 of the 17,903 marine animals and plants assessed on the red list criteria are at risk of extinction.

However, now there is hope as countries reached an agreement on a crucial treaty on Saturday, March 4. The treaty’s official name is the “Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ)”. It now awaits adoption by UN member-states.

Sri Lanka has officially welcomed the agreement. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry says Sri Lanka welcomes the commitment of developed countries under the BBNJ agreement to fund capacity-building projects which will assist developing countries to undertake conservation measures.

The talks of managing the world’s high seas started in 2004 – almost two decades ago under the provisions of the Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Adopted in 1982, the UNCLOS, of which Sri Lanka is a signatory, came into force in 1994. The UNCLOS set a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities under national jurisdictions, introducing the concept of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

As marine biodiversity is mainly threatened due to overfishing and natural resources being over-exploited, the need to manage the ‘high seas’ or the areas beyond EEZ assumed greater importance, but UNCLOS does not provide a framework for areas beyond national jurisdiction.

The UN then established an intergovernmental conference on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The conference was convened on six occasions. The marine conservationists had hoped for a final deal at last year’s conference, but the talks failed without an agreement.

The new agreement sets a framework for establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas. This was absent in previous drafts. A new body (A UN Conference of Parties) will be empowered to establish these MPAs with the goal to establish a connected network of high-seas MPAs. This includes the development of a new body to consider an MPA management plan and establish associated measures.

“We act as if ocean resources are inexhaustible that will keep on providing an unlimited harvest of fish and can dump everything, but, ocean resources also need to be used sustainably, otherwise it will be like killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” says Prof. Terney Pradeep Kumara, of the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences & Technology at the University of Ruhuna.

Many marine species are on the brink of extinction due to overfishing, so establishing large MPAs on high seas would benefit such species, Prof. Kumara said.

Sri Lanka has multiday boats that do fishing on the high seas and the Fisheries Ministry has a High Seas Fisheries Unit to manage such activities. The Ministry has issued about 2,674 High Seas fishing licences, but in reality, only around 1000 multiday boats conduct fishing in the High Seas, says Multiday Boat Owners Association president Tyron Mendis.

In case an MPA is set near Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, local fishermen may have an impact, but as it helps to increase fish stocks – such MPAs may also benefit them, Prof. Kumara said. However, Sri Lanka needs to assess the clauses of the agreement and should set local legislation in a manner that benefits the country, he said.

Other than providing fish, there are many other benefits from the ocean. Since any country can do research on the high seas, developed countries with their advanced technologies freely conduct research aimed at, among other things, finding genetic resources.

These genetic resources, for example, may be used to produce a pharmaceutical product and earn a colossal amount of revenue. To manage this, the high seas treaty calls for a fair sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources.

The treaty will balance the freedom of marine scientific research with fair and equitable sharing of benefits, states the High Seas Alliance (HSA), an international organisation that pushes for the protection of the high seas. The agreement contains obligations for States to share both non-monetary benefits — for example, access to samples and increased scientific cooperation — and monetary benefits, HSA says.

The treaty also set the need for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) for activities on the high seas, such as large-scale geoengineering projects, and high-seas aquaculture.

To benefit from the agreement in a fair and equitable manner, developing countries such as Sri Lanka focus on capacity building and transfer of technology, knowledge sharing, and cooperation to fulfill rights and responsibilities in a meaningful manner.

The Foreign Ministry also notes that Sri Lanka’s participation during the negotiations ensured that the conference took into account these concerns.

However, even though the text of this new treaty was agreed upon, its implementation will take years, says Daniel Fernando of the Blue Resources Trust (BRT). According to the UN process, the countries need to meet again to formally adopt the agreement and then keep it open for countries to sign the treaty.

The High Seas Treaty will only enter “into force” after 60 countries sign it and pass supporting legislation in their home countries. “But it is a big step forward in conserving marine biodiversity as there are a lot of unsustainable exploitations,” Mr. Fernando told the Sunday Times.

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