Rio+20: oceans and the "zero draft"

I’ve been reviewing  the oceans portion of what is called in UN-speak the “zero draft” of the Rio+20 intergovernmental outcome. This is the document governments will be negotiating over the next several months leading up to the Rio + 20 meeting in June.   It is far from the final word – we are just at the beginning of the negotiating process – but the draft yields important clues about the direction the process may take, and whether the outcomes will pay more than just lip service to the large and growing threats to our oceans.

As a whole, the 9 short paragraphs comprising the oceans portion of the draft negotiating text are underwhelming.   The document describes some of the immense problems facing our oceans – overfishing, pollution, ocean acidification, marine debris -- but contains few hard commitments to actually do something about it. 

With one critical exception.

If countries ultimately agree in June, the draft text would commit governments to negotiate a new treaty to protect almost 2/3rds of the world’s oceans, and half the planet’s surface – that is, the ocean beyond national jurisdiction, a zone of international waters that are beyond the control of any one nation, and thus subject to international management.

This area of the ocean supports important fisheries and contains perhaps the largest reservoir of relatively undisturbed biodiversity left on earth. It is truly our last great wilderness.

And yet it is threatened. As coastal waters become overfished, polluted and depleted, human industrial activities have pressed farther and farther out to sea.  As we expand out into international waters seeking fish, minerals and other riches, the need for conservation is becoming more urgent. But at present there is no international mechanism to implement even basic conservation and management tools.

 For example, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a proven and effective means of conserving and protecting marine wildlife, biodiversity, fish populations and vulnerable marine ecosystems like deep sea corals. In the US and many other countries, these marine parks have helped restore depleted fisheries and have provided safe havens for endangered whales, sea turtles, seals and other ocean wildlife. Yet there is no legal mechanism to establish multi-sector protected areas in the oceans beyond national jurisdiction. This is a huge gap that urgently needs filling.

As another example, prior environmental impact assessment is commonly required for waters within national jurisdiction for activities with the potential to have significant adverse effects on the marine environment. (In the US, this requirement has been in place for more than 40 years).  In areas beyond national jurisdiction,  prior environmental assessment is required for some activities but not others, and standards governing how EIA should be done vary widely between sectors.  All activities should be subject to consistent prior assessment requirements.  Its just common sense.

Agreement to negotiate a treaty that would allow the creation of marine parks, ensure that damaging activities are assessed before they commence, and implement other reforms would be a major outcome of Rio+20.  The test will be whether the language stays in through the coming months of negotiating ahead.

On other subjects, the draft text opens some important doors.  There is language calling for a program of action on marine debris, and for a monitoring program on ocean acidification.  We will be working to strengthen these and other oceans provisions in the coming months as well.

The Oceans Team here at NRDC will be blogging about other aspects of the zero draft, including provisions on ocean acidification and marine debris. Stay tuned!