The international ocean, the last frontier for uncivilised and uncontrolled human behaviour, is on the verge of being tamed. The Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) treaty, also known as the ‘High Seas Treaty’, has been accepted in principle.
But why should we care?
Most of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean, and two-thirds of the ocean are considered “high seas”: areas of the ocean outside the jurisdiction of any country. The high seas are crucial to regulate many environmental processes that make the earth liveable for us. The high seas have also seen some of the worst illegal behaviour, from overfishing to blatant human rights abuses, all while being subject to land-based pollution (e.g. plastics and microplastics) and climate change.
Having a treaty to regulate all this is much needed, and the new treaty is expected to have the biggest global conservation and regulatory footprint (outside atmospheric and climate treaties).
Securing ‘Blue Economies’
A BBNJ treaty could not only have biodiversity impacts but also economic ones. Take the case of high seas around the continent of Africa. Since many African countries lack the capital and technological prowess to have their fishing fleets venture outside their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), European fleets have plundered those international oceans. If these European fleets had been bound by the laws of their home countries, it probably would not make economic sense for them to fish in those waters. India, with its primarily nearshore fishing fleet, is in a similar technological position to these African nations, especially with respect to Chinese and European fleets outside our EEZ.
Being able to distribute and regulate our national fishing effort within and outside our EEZ, alongside regulated international fishing effort in the high seas, could give India the sustainable fisheries that could secure our ‘Blue Economy’. Doing so would require several steps, starting with tracking the movements of fishing vessels. Although vessel-monitoring systems have been installed in many vessels that travel to the high seas, they are relatively easy to disable, allowing for the illegal movement of vessels as well as illegal operations. Requiring the use of such vessel-monitoring throughout international fishing operations could be a turning point – not only to secure fisheries but also for political stability.
Currently, when international laws are broken at sea, the consequences vary. Depending on which countries have negotiated treaties with which other individual countries, there may or may not be scope for punitive action.
Consider the case of the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It is currently claimed to be a British Indian Ocean Territory (albeit disputed by Mauritius) and its waters have been declared an environment preservation and protection zone. Due to its remote location, fishers have to traverse the high seas to get there. With the small local population (expelled decades ago by the U.K.) and use as a U.S. military base, its local fishing activity is muted. Consequently, the Chagos are an attractive rest stop for fishers, especially from India and Sri Lanka, looking to plunder the high seas.
A recent treaty between the U.K. and Sri Lanka has resulted in greater monitoring and penalties for Sri Lankan boats that fish in those waters, and a resulting decline in Sri Lankan fishing vessels in that region. India has no such treaty; as a result, Indian fishers continue to catch species threatened with extinction, such as sharks, with few consequences.
A global scale treaty on the movement of fishing vessels through the high seas could have ramifications on such issues because individual countries won’t need to negotiate such things on a case-by-case basis.
The BBNJ treaty, however, is not a panacea for these issues. Although negotiations began in 2018 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, with the aim of regulating fishing gear and reporting fish-catch data, the final agreed-upon version of the treaty looks quite different. Although the urgency of marine biodiversity loss and marine ecosystem destruction are evident, the negotiations were challenging – including disagreements over the scope of the treaty and the level of protection it should provide.
Some countries raised concerns about the potential impact of the treaty on their fishing industries, while others called for stronger measures to protect marine biodiversity. By the time it was accepted in principle, the key goals became: to establish a network of marine protected areas; to protect genetic resources; and to ensure equitable sharing of benefits gained from genetic resources.
These goals are important. Marine protected areas are crucial to protect deep sea corals, seamounts, pelagic, and highly migratory species. These ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to damage from bottom-trawling and other destructive fishing practices. The hope is that these areas would be designated as off-limits to fishing and other activities that could harm marine biodiversity.
Additionally, sustainable use has been a guiding principle of the treaty, with significant ramifications for the fishing industry and the promotion of biodiversity conservation. These features have made wildlife conservation organisations laud the treaty.
Drawbacks of the treaty
However, the treaty falls short of addressing some key threats that affect ocean biodiversity, notably fishing and industrial expansion, such as deep-seabed mining. The social inclusivity of the treaty also raises questions. Access- and benefit-sharing has always been a highly negotiated principle within any treaty, and this treaty requires fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources. However, it stops short of discussing the sharing of any other type of resource.
Another key challenge that the treaty failed to address is to identify a suitable international enforcement agency that could monitor and enforce the regulations laid out by the treaty. Such an enforcement body would also require a financial commitment – another issue that has not been negotiated or included.
Clearly, the new ‘High Seas Treaty’ is just the beginning of a long and tedious process of regulating various aspects of human use in international oceans. Despite these challenges, there is growing momentum behind the treaty.
In 2020, a group of more than 170 environmental and human rights organisations issued a statement calling for the treaty to be finalised and adopted as soon as possible. If goodwill were currency, this treaty could be considered rich. Its actual impact will depend on how practicality and goodwill meet, and whether future negotiations will address some of the key shortcomings of this version of the treaty.
Divya Karnad is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Ashoka University.
- The international ocean, the last frontier for uncivilised and uncontrolled human behaviour, is on the verge of being tamed. The Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) treaty, also known as the ‘High Seas Treaty’, has been accepted in principle.
- The new treaty is expected to have the biggest global conservation and regulatory footprint (outside atmospheric and climate treaties).
- Sustainable use has been a guiding principle of the treaty, with significant ramifications for the fishing industry and the promotion of biodiversity conservation. These features have made wildlife conservation organisations laud the treaty.