A delegation from India and other member countries of the United Nations are in New York to deliberate on a one-of-its-kind agreement to conserve marine biodiversity in the high seas, namely the oceans that extend beyond countries’ territorial waters.
The agreement follows a resolution by the UN General Assembly in May and is expected to be the final in a series set in motion since 2018 to draft an international legally binding instrument under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The high seas comprise nearly 45% of the Earth’s surface.
The Indian delegation comprises officials from the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Centre for Marine Fisheries and Research Institute and the Ministry of External Affairs.
A key aspect of the agreement is deciding on the rights of companies that undertake exploration for biological resources in the high seas: do companies have absolute rights on any discovery or extraction in these regions or should they share their gains, in terms of intellectual property and royalties with a UN-prescribed body, said M. Ravichandran, Secretary, MoES. The MoES is the nodal Ministry tasked with coordinating India’s position on the forthcoming agreement.
Typically the focus of mining activity in the sea has been for gas hydrates, precious metals and other fossil fuel resources. However with advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering, several companies see potential in exotic microbes and other organisms – several of them undiscovered – that abide in the deep ocean and could be used for drugs, vaccine and a variety of commercial applications.
Last June, the Union Cabinet approved a ‘Blue Economy’ policy for India, a nearly ₹4,000-crore programme spread over five years, that among other things will develop a manned submersible vessel as well as work on “bio-prospecting of deep-sea flora and fauna including microbes”. Studies on sustainable utilisation of deep sea bio-resources will be the main focus. Mr. Ravichandran said that there were already companies carrying out such exploratory activities though little was known about them. “Hence an international agreement that spells out obligations and permissible activities is important,” he told The Hindu.
He said that preliminary discussions in the run-up to the conference suggested that countries were likely to firm up a final agreement – a process that has been in the works for over a decade – at the conclusion of the conference on August 26.
K.M. Gopakumar, legal advisor and an expert on intellectual property matter with the Third World Network, said that there was a “race” among international corporations for biological resources from the sea, making it critical to have an agreement on benefit-sharing. “These resources are the common heritage of mankind and we can’t allow it to be monopolised by a few entities,” he told The Hindu.
Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under‑Secretary‑General for Legal Affairs, UN Legal Counsel, and Secretary‑General of the conference, said in a statement that there was ample evidence of increased pressures on the world’s oceans. Left unaddressed, their cumulative effect would lead to a destructive cycle in which the oceans would no longer be able to provide many services that humans and other life on this planet depend on. Sustainable oceans and seas could contribute to poverty eradication, sustained economic growth, food security and creation of sustainable livelihoods, while helping to build resilience to the impacts of climate change.