On the Brink of Ocean Extinctions, a UN Agreement Is Needed to Protect High Seas Health

We could be on the verge of a breakthrough for protection of our oceans. Or on the brink of ocean collapse.

A front page story in today's New York Times, "Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction," reports on a major study, gathering data from an impressive range of sources, that shows evidence that our oceans are on the edge of a catastrophic, largely human-caused extinction event. Believe it or not, there is also good news in the study, "Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean," published in the journal Science.

The authors say that humans, who have brought about these perilous conditions, likely have the power to fix the problem, if we act quickly. The oceans still have the resilience to bounce back if we can provide ocean species with needed protections.

And I have even more good news: next week, after nearly nine years of discussions, nations will gather at the UN to make recommendations on how to conserve and manage the world's international waters, known as the high seas. These discussions may lead to strengthening ocean conservation, or to maintaining the status quo--a path we now know is likely to lead to mass extinctions.

The high seas, marine waters beyond the jurisdiction of any nation, cover nearly half the planet's surface. This area was once considered a biological desert, but is now understood to support an enormous reservoir of unexplored biodiversity. It is often said that we know more about the far side of the moon than we do the high seas.

For most of human history, we have been without the technologies that would allow us to thoroughly explore--and exploit--this largely unmapped region of our planet. Even now, these waters are so vast that when a Malaysian airliner went down last year in remote ocean waters, investigators were unable to locate the plane, even after a months-long search.

Still, this marine wilderness is more accessible than ever before. Even as new species and ecosystems emerge with nearly every new scientific voyage, the high seas are under siege from overfishing, seabed mining, chemical and noise pollution, plastic waste, ship traffic, and destructive practices such as bottom trawling. All of this is occurring against a backdrop of CO2-related warming and acidification. This is why stronger, modern high seas management is urgently needed. While a laissez-faire policy might have been tenable in the past, in the modern world, technologies are allowing nations to exploit the oceans' unique resources to depletion, with few protections or restrictions in place. As human industrial activity continues to move farther and deeper out, plumbing previously unexploited waters, development is occurring in a haphazard fashion, with little regard for individual or cumulative effects.

The high seas are a fascinating place, where scientists are finding everything from strange new species of fish to previously unknown ecosystems. They have also discovered that the high seas are home to some of the oldest known living organisms, cold-water corals that are at least 8,500 years old, and to undersea mountains far taller than Mt. Everest. Some scientific finds even hold great potential for producing lifesaving medicines.

Solutions At Hand

We can't afford to lose this biodiversity, but we need to choose our battles. An important piece of news in this Science study is that, while overharvesting is bad for ocean life, an even greater foe is large-scale loss of habitat. This has come about from bottom trawling which destroys the ocean floor, seabed mining, and fish farming in delicate ecosystems. On an even larger scale, the loss occurs due to warming waters, mostly from climate change, and ocean acidification caused by carbon emissions. All of these habitat losses are accelerating.

One important international discussion that will be raised at the UN meeting next week is the possibility of creating fully protected marine parks on the high seas, such as those that have been routinely established within national jurisdiction in many countries, such as the United States. The new study confirms that marine reserves, like those we have on land, are one of the best tools we have now for helping ocean species to adapt to a changing ocean. These help protect marine life from harmful human activity, and enhance ecosystem resilience in the face of acidification and warming. For now, fifty percent of the earth lacks a mechanism to create these parks--a huge gap in the world parks system.

In 2006, the UN began discussions to identify gaps such as this in the current international framework, and to decide whether these gaps necessitate development of a new international legal instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). I urge all nations to support a decision to develop a new legal agreement that would safeguard the biodiversity of the high seas against significant threats. Without that instrument, we leave the oceans in jeopardy.

Ocean species can only adapt so quickly, however, so the other crucial step we need to take is to cut carbon emissions, to stop the advance of ocean warming and acidification.

It is urgent that we stave off ocean collapse, and next week's UN meeting is a crucial time for world leaders to commit to international action.