High Seas

The high seas or marine areas beyond national jurisdiction are a topic of growing interest. Research and management is evolving fast, due to a realisation that it needs to be in advance of rates of exploitation. The biggest current threat to the high seas is exploitation, particularly of deep-sea fisheries, which affects both fish stocks and habitats. Seamounts are especially vulnerable to heavy fishing, due to their easily exploited life history characteristics. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are currently a favored strategy for conserving not only biodiversity and habitats, but also fish stocks. However, efforts for establishing MPAs have focused, along with most initiatives, almost entirely on coastal areas.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for 30% of the world's fish catch, with illegal and unreported catches globally representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes. Thus it is one of the major reasons why the international community is failing to conserve and manage high seas stocks. IUU fishing is carried out by vessels operating outside existing regional management agreements and without regard for sustainable fishing practices. In addition, another important factor that contributes to the failure of conservation is that often decision makers fail to adopt or implement management plans despite adamant scientific advice.

High Seas and the Convention on Biological Diversity

In paragraph 44(c) of Decision VIII/24, the Conference of the Parties in 2006 requested the Executive Secretary to collaborate in the further development of spatial databases containing information on marine areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, including the distribution of habitats and species in particular rare or fragile ecosystems, as well as the habitats of depleted, threatened or endangered species and data on national and regional marine protected areas and networks. In undertaking this task, the Executive Secretary was asked to work actively with, and to take into account scientific information available from, the range of relevant expertise available in governmental, intergovernmental, non-governmental, regional and scientific institutions, expert scientific processes and workshops, and, indigenous and local communities, where appropriate. Several decisions in the CBD support the establishment of MPAs and the CBD has taken a growing interest in the application of MPAs to areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

The CBD defines a MPA as 'any defined area within or adjacent to the marine environment, together with its overlying waters and associated flora, fauna and historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by legislation or other effective means, including custom, with the effect that its marine and/or coastal biodiversity enjoys a higher level of protection that its surroundings' (CBD Decision VII/5, Annex 11).

In 2008 the CBD further elaborated upon its commitment to studying the high seas by inviting Parties, Governments and other organizations to ‘study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction’ (CBD Decision IX/20, 8). Furthermore it provided scientific guidance for selecting areas to establish a representative network of marine protected areas, including in open ocean waters and deep sea habitats (CBD Decision IX/20, Annex II).

Project Summary

The project is focused on applying scientific and indigenous knowledge to the conservation of large-scale marine areas in the Pacific. The Pacific Ocean is the largest in the world, covering a third of the earth’s surface and has an incredible range of biodiversity. The main aims of the project are:

  • Development of a pilot project in the Pacific region that will generate lessons learned for the application of multiple scientific criteria and a process for identifying important areas of the ocean in need of protection
  • Improve understanding of regional and indigenous needs
  • Build partnerships focused on large-scale regional conservation
  • Contribute to Pacific marine conservation within and beyond national jurisdiction

To achieve these aims work is in progress to identify and compile regional data sources and relevant information, working with key partners in the region. Pilot approaches will also be developed for conducting multi-criteria analyses. An important step in the process is building relationships and political, financial and scientific support in the region.

Comprehensive mapping of high seas MPAs (HSMPAs), key habitats and species should allow more informed selection of MPA sites via the application of MPA selection criteria. It should also aid the incorporation of biological data in to future high seas ecoregionalisations. This supports part b) of CBD Decision VII/24, Annex 44, which asks for the development of criteria for the identification of marine areas in need of protection, and biogeographical and other ecological classification systems.

Mapping HSMPAs allows spatial gaps in existing management to be identified. Overlaying physical and biological data (bathymetry, seamounts and cold-water corals) allows identification of locations that are potentially biodiverse or vulnerable. High seas fishing pressure in the form of catches from dredging and bottom trawling allow assessment of the likely naturalness of locations, given their historical fishing pressure. Finally, one global marine ecoregional approach developed by the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) was plotted to allow 'representativeness' of existing management areas to be assessed.

Tony Pitcher, Malcolm Clark, Telmo Morato and Reg Watson (2010) Fisheries: Do They Have a Future? Oceanography Vol. 23, No. 1, The Oceanography Society

Matthew Gianni and Walt Simpson (2005) The changing nature of high seas fishing: how flags of convenience provide cover for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, Australian Department of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Forestry, International Transport Workers’ Federation and WWF International

Kevin Riddle (2006) Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing: Is International Cooperation Contagious? Ocean Development & International Law Vol. 37, No. 3 & 4

David Agnew, John Pearce, Ganapathiraju Pramod, Tom Peatman, Reg Watson, John Beddington and Tony Pitcher (2009) Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing, PloS ONE Vol. 4, No. 2, e4570. <doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004570> Accessed: 20 May, 2011