This is Part 1 of a 4 post series on the Sustainable Oceans Summit held in Halifax from Nov. 29-Dec. 1st 2017.

Many important topics were covered over the course of the three day Sustainable Ocean Summit held in Halifax from November 29th-December 1st. However, as a masters student currently researching the effectiveness of marine protected areas (MPAs) for highly migratory species, many of which spend part of their lifecycles in international waters, I was particularly interested in the session on the new “UN Law of the Sea Legally Binding Instrument on Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction” (now there’s a mouthful!). Part of my masters research has involved conducting interviews, and on many occasions, interviewees made reference to this new agreement and stressed the role it will play in helping to manage species in the high seas. Needless to say, I was excited about hearing what this instrument might mean for marine conservation, especially from those who were so intricately involved in its drafting. Unfortunately, I felt that the speakers missed the boat here, but I’ll speak more on that later. First let’s start with some positive takeaways.

The Good and the Beautiful

Laying the foundation for Collaboration

             Across all of the topics covered during the summit, the one overarching theme was collaboration. More specifically, panelists were all asked to consider how various ocean users can best work together to ensure the sustainability of our oceans, and this is where I feel the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) instrument made the biggest impact.

             Industrial activities such as fishing and shipping are steadily increasing in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), which are defined as all areas in the water column beyond 200 nautical miles of the continental margin. These activities are having profound impacts on species, habitats, and ecosystems, and yet we have no comprehensive governance framework for managing these areas. Instead, the high seas are actually governed by numerous international, regional, and sectoral agreements and organizations, creating a headache for all involved. This is where BBNJ comes into play.

             The BBNJ is a proposed amendment to the UN Law of the Sea Convention, and as such would be an international legally-binding instrument. This is an opportunity, and one that doesn’t come around very often, to lay the foundation for a more integrated and cross-sectoral (aka collaborative) system of governance in ABNJ that takes into account both conservation and sustainable use. Indeed, this need to strike a balance between industrial uses and biodiversity conservation in these areas was heavily stressed during the panel discussion. 

             All in all, BBNJ will address a major gap in ocean management by providing the foundation for collaboration among users of the high seas, a feat which at present appears to be disturbingly lacking.

The Bad and the Ugly

Marine spatial planning, marine protected areas ... what are the practical applications of BBNJ?

             As previously mentioned, I have a personal research interest in marine spatial management tools and their use for protecting highly migratory species. Many of these species, like the leatherback turtle for example, make massive annual migrations that take them into international waters during certain times of the year. Thus, part of what I’ve had to consider is how we can manage these species in these areas when there is currently no international legal mechanism for doing so. The countless mentions of BBNJ by people I interviewed made it seem like it was the answer to my prayers, so needless to say, when I sat down for the session I was very excited.

             Alas, I was disappointed. I found the discussion of the instrument very superficial and lacking any meaningful mention of BBNJ’s practical applications for marine spatial planning. Given that its purpose is to allow for better management of biodiversity in the high seas, I was hoping that the panelists would talk about how BBNJ would achieve this. I also found that the lack of discussion of spatial management was a large oversight given the current global and national commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 10% of marine areas systems by 2020.  I realize that BBNJ is still very much in its infancy, many of its details are yet to be finalized, and thus its impacts are still largely unknown. That being said, I feel that the session would have benefitted from more discussion of its practical uses for marine spatial planning and species conservation, even if only at a hypothetical level.

             All in all, it’s hard to say whether BBNJ really is the answer that I’ve been searching for, at least not yet.   

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