A Major Step Forward for the High Seas

As many oceans folks know, countries assembled at UN Headquarters in New York last month to decide whether to develop a new international instrument for the conservation and management of marine biological diversity in areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction (the high seas). The January meeting was the culmination of almost a decade of debate over how best to manage increasing human activity in the high seas, which constitute nearly 2/3rds of the world's oceans and cover almost half the planet.

Over the course of 4 days, countries negotiated intensively, and in the wee hours of the last day of the meeting, States finally came to consensus agreement to recommend development of a new legally-binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The new agreement will address (among other things) the current lack of any mechanism to create fully protected marine parks on the high seas, and the lack of uniform requirements for environmental impact assessments. Participating countries agreed on a 2-year preparatory process (2016-2017) to develop the elements of the instrument.

This outcome paves the way for the initiation of negotiations on a new agreement for the high seas -a huge step for ocean conservation!

We did not get everything we wanted. Among other things, we were disappointed that an aggressive timeline for completing negotiations was not adopted. Nevertheless, the decision to move forward with a new, legally binding instrument represents a major victory. We are very grateful for the leadership (and endurance) of our champion countries, including Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Jamaica, the EU, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago.

Next Steps

Now the real work of negotiating an agreement begins. A few days after the conclusion of the New York meeting, we began discussions with key players to begin nailing down the structure of the negotiations to come, including the number and timing of negotiating sessions, who will chair them, and how non-governmental organizations like NRDC will participate. All of these issues have important implications for our ability to ensure a robust conservation regime emerges at the end of the process.

And of course much work will be required to educate countries on the various elements that could be elaborated in a future agreement, to ensure champion countries remain engaged, and to continue to build international support for a strong agreement to counter efforts by non-conservation minded States that may attempt to water down a future agreement. We are thrilled to be able to move on to this next phase, and we are so grateful for the support and encouragement of so many for so long. Onward!