The United Nations has launched a far-reaching initiative that could give U.N.-sponsored authorities sway over the biological resources of the high seas—all the waters that lie outside national territories and economic zones.
The potential shift in power involves multi-trillion-dollar issues, such as whether large areas—conceivably, as much as 30 percent– of the world’s international waters should be designated as no-go areas to protect biological diversity; whether and how to require elaborate “environmental impact assessments” for future ocean development projects; and how to divide up the economic benefits from the future development of “marine genetic resources.”
Eden Charles, a diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago who is serving as the chairman for a U.N. preparatory committee that began the discussions this week underlined to Fox News that the talks are at a “very, very preliminary stage.”
Overall, the hoped-for treaty will cover “two-thirds of the oceans, almost half the planet,” says Lisa Speer, a senior official of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is in turn a lead member of a squadron of 33 environmentalist groups banded together as the High Seas Alliance to lobby for protectionist measures during the talks.
The rationale behind the discussions: easing the rising pressure on the world’s undersea biodiversity wrought by over-fishing, pollution, the drainage of nutrients and other substances from surrounding lands, disturbance of underwater seabeds, and fears of even greater threats from underwater industrial technology, including underwater exploration for hydrocarbons.
In U.N. terms, the discussions are proceeding at something like flank speed—that is, a lot slower than a melting iceberg bobbing in the north Atlantic. They began with the initial meeting on March 28 of the preparatory committee– “prep-com” in U.N.-speak–of nations to discuss preliminary ideas until Friday, April 8. Another two-week prep-com session will take place in August, and two more next year.
These are expected to result by the end of 2017 in draft language for a planned oceans treaty that could then be chewed over for another year or two in broader international sessions.
The agreement that ensues from those discussions, however, is seen by some involved in its hoped-for creation as the salt-water equivalent of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which will be formally signed at an April 22 ceremony in New York—a global, permanent and legally-binding deal for the management of Earth’s last frontier, which will spawn further layers of regulation in years to come.
“The climate negotiations showed the possibilities for us to come together,” Speer told Fox News.
Like the climate treaty, the intended oceans treaty envisages transfers of marine technology and investment to developing nations as part of the deal , along with some still far-from-specified portion of the wealth derived from marine biological discoveries, including genetic breakthroughs.
“One of the things we are looking at is how marine genetic resources will be conserved, sustainably used, and how the dividends will be shared,” says Speer.
One of the biggest backers of the preliminary talks is the Obama Administration. Even though the U.S. has never ratified the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Convention—the new talks are aimed at creating an “implementing agreement” under the Law of the Sea umbrella—the Administration is deeply involved in the negotiations, as are some of the world’s most powerful environmental organizations.
The U.S. also has a legal precedent for its involvement: its ratification in 1996 of another “implementing agreement” under the Law of the Sea Convention that orchestrated the activities of a variety of regional fisheries management organizations across international waters, allowed for international enforcement, and a variety of other measures.
Ocean bio-preservation is also one of the 17 nebulous Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by all the world’s governments, including the U.S. last September.