Canada Has a Role to Play in Championing a New Agreement to Protect 50% of the Planet

by Susanna Fuller.

The cliché “out of sight, out of mind” could not be applicable to any place on earth more than the high seas. This vast area of our ocean, making up 50% of our blue planet, is 200 miles beyond the coastline of every country, and only those who work in fisheries, the merchant marine or who have the pleasure of sailing for long periods of time can count themselves among the few who have experienced what it is like to see ocean, and only ocean, for days at a time. Yet this out of sight, out of mind part of our planet comprises a significant part of global marine biodiversity, produces much of the oxygen we need, and is important for many of the marine species that exist within our coastal water—particularly highly migratory species like tuna, sharks, whales and seabirds not to mention the diversity found on undersea mountains, deep trenches and the sea floor.


Despite its importance for thousands, likely millions of marine species, there are currently limited tools available to protect the high seas from human impacts. Since 2006, countries have been informally discussing the fact that current legal tools do not adequately protect this biodiversity. There are gaps in the legal framework and global governance mechanisms that allow for protections we have come to take for granted closer to home, including marine protected areas and environmental impact assessments.

An important commitment to address these gaps was made in the outcome document of the Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Brazil in 2012. And following that, countries took a decision in 2015 to start a formal process to create an international legally binding instrument to fill the gaps, and allow for areas of the high seas to be protected from human activities, assess the impacts of these activities and create a regime to share the benefits derived from marine genetic resources on the high seas.

Additionally, as part of moving towards implementation of the Rio + 20 “Future We Want,” the Sustainable Development Goals were developed, including Goal 14 on Oceans. All of this is important progress towards recognizing that our ocean requires specific attention in global conservation governance and actions.

This past week (August 26-September 9th), that “formal process” was convened for the second time at the United Nations in New York. Civil society organizations were very present, including making the case for biodiversity protection and a strong agreement via online messages to governments. Ocean Unite and the Pew Charitable Trusts have created compelling videos to encourage governments to take a strong position and to further educate the public on this important but oft neglected half of our planet.

So we know the high seas are important, and that there are gaps in protecting biodiversity—the question we have facing us is where is Canada in this mix, particularly with our three oceans and long history of being a leader in international oceans governance?

The Ecology Action Centre, as part of the High Seas Alliance (a coalition of ~30 civil society organizations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)), has been in attendance and following the discussions closely, particularly the interventions made by Canada.


Being at the UN is much less beautiful than the images in the video links above, but its no less important as it’s the only forum where the global agreements can actually happen.

From our perspective, Canada has a critical role to play in the formulating of a new agreement for the high seas. Canada has been a leader in past agreements such as the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) and the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA) and most recently, championed the Paris Agreement – all of which have moved the global bar on how countries cooperate on issues relevant to the protection of our shared environment.

Because of our three oceans, we have not only an obligation to engage in ocean protection discussions, Canada can bring much needed expertise to the table from past experience, academic and government marine research, civil society and most importantly, experience in championing mechanisms to better manage and protect the global ocean. As we move to protect at least 10% within our own waters, as we’ve committed to in the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets, we must work with many sectors (shipping, fishing and energy being the most prevalent), through multiple jurisdictions and with several legal instruments.

This is not so different on the high seas, except there is nothing like Canada’s Oceans Act to provide guidance in the establishment of marine protected areas. There is no legal instrument that provides for environmental impact assessments of human activities, before they are allowed to take place. There is no way to figure out who might benefit and how, if a biochemical compound that can help with medical breakthroughs, as an example, is found in a species originating on the high seas or the sea floor beyond national jurisdiction.

Not only are the high seas out of sight and frequently out of mind, but to protect them, we need to work through a complicated international law and policy network and figure out a legal and procedural way to identify important areas and then a way to actually protect them. This is no easy feat but it’s what needs to happen to ensure that we can start to take care of the high seas. And it is the primary reason we need a new international and legally binding agreement.

Some work has been done by scientists to identify “ecologically and biologically significant areas” on the high seas, and some vulnerable marine ecosystems of the high seas have been closed to bottom trawling, but there are no fully protected areas and right now and until we have a new agreement, there isn’t a way to create them. Canada has much to contribute and should be working with other countries to put some concrete proposals on the table for specific language on area-based management tools, including practical recommendations for identification of areas that need protection and aspirational goals for how these areas would be designated.

There is a need for strong language on environmental impact assessments, particularly for cumulative impacts of human activities. Canada will bring together experts to help craft their positions and hopefully support a leadership role, with the first consultation scheduled for November 2, 2016. We know that where there is a will, there is a way—perhaps most recently by Canada’s comparatively strong stance on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and membership in the “High Ambition Coalition” during the negotiations of the Paris Agreement, otherwise known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


It is time that Canada brought that ambition to the preparatory committee of the negotiations for a new high seas treaty. Luckily, there are two more “Prep Comm” meetings to go in 2017 before a decision is taken to begin the formal negotiating process. The world is waiting for Canada to take a strong stance on protecting the global oceans and the clock is ticking on an opportunity to do just that.

Susanna D. Fuller is a Senior Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, and after being at the UN for a week found it very difficult to write this blog without only using acronyms! She has been to the high seas and it is one of her happy places.


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