As President Joe Bidens administration moves to restore U.S. global leadership on the environment, it cannot afford to ignore the health of oceans. It must spearhead the successful conclusion of negotiations on aU.N. high seas biodiversity convention, which are currently adrift. To bring this treaty into port, the United States will need to forge global agreement on several contentious issues. It will also need to temperits neuralgic opposition to legally binding multilateral commitments, recognizing that the treaty poses no threat to U.S. sovereignty and is deeply in American interests.
More From Our Experts
Although not entirely lawless, the high seas are poorly governed bya fragmentary patchwork of regulatory schemescovering everything from migratory birds and regional fisheries to deep-sea mining and pollution from ships. The biggest gap in oceans governance is the absence of a comprehensive agreement to conserve and sustainably manage marine living resources and ecosystems on the high seas, which are experiencing catastrophic declines as technological advances permit their unprecedented exploitation. Already, some 40 percent of the worlds oceans have beenseverely altered by human activity; only 3 percent can beconsidered pristine.
Oceans and Seas
Treaties and Agreements
A proposed high seas pactformally, the Internationally Legally Binding Instrument on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, or so-called BBNJ treatywould plug this gaping hole. It woulddramatically enhance environmental stewardshipover a vast commons thatencompasses 43 percent of Earths surface, contains 90 percent of the oceans biomass, and constitutes the greatest repository of planetary biodiversity. The BBNJ treaty would bean implementing agreementunder theU.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, the closest approximation to a constitution for the worlds oceans.
The World This Week
A weekly digest of the latestfrom CFR on the biggest foreign policy stories of the week, featuring briefs, opinions, and explainers. Every Friday.
Formalintergovernmental negotiations on the BBNJopened in September 2018. Unfortunately, the treaty is nowstuck in the doldrums. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, parties were slated to hold their fourth (and ostensibly final) negotiating session in March 2020. Bad timing. The postponed talks are scheduled to resume in August, though this date could slip. More worrisome,international divisions persist on core issuesat the heart of the treaty, including the multilateral rules that should govern marine genetic resources, area-based management tools, environmental impact assessments and capacity-building. Underlying many specific disagreements isa broader philosophical divide: Developing nations insist that the high seas and their resources constitute the common heritage of mankind, whereas developed nations, including the U.S., tend to invoke the freedom of the seas and resist being bound by international obligations.
The topic ofmarine genetic resourcesis especially divisive. While there is consensus that all nations should benefit from their exploitation, the actual details of any global regime remain elusivesuch as whether benefit-sharing should be voluntary or mandatory, or whether it should apply only to specimens collected in situ or also todigital sequence information(or genetic sequence data) subsequently derived from those specimens. Generally speaking, poorer nations insist on maximal benefit-sharing, whereas wealthy ones seek toprotect the intellectual property rights of companiesseeking to profit from their investments.
More From Our Experts
Countries are similarly divided on the principles and rules that should govern the collective management of fragile, biodiverse zones, including through the designation of marine protected areas and other arrangements. The high seas containmany ecologically sensitive regions, such as theEmperor Seamount Chainstretching from the Aleutian to the Hawaiian Islands. Nations have yet to agree on the authorities and mechanisms whereby the world will identify, establish, regulate and monitor such zones. Reaching agreement on such matters is a precondition forachieving the 30 by 30 goalof protecting 30 percent of Earths marine and terrestrial surface by 2030,a target Biden recently endorsed.
The BBNJ negotiations reveal that there is broad multilateral consensus for states toconduct environmental impact assessmentsbefore undertaking major activities on the high seas. But there is scant agreement on thethreshold that should trigger such assessments, the technical standards that should inform them, and whether they should be mandated and/or reviewed by a treaty body. There is also disagreement on how best to build the capacities of developing countries to participate in the conservation and sustainable use of the high seas, including how to assess their needs and whether technology transfers should be mandatory or voluntary.
Oceans and Seas
Treaties and Agreements
Beyond resolving these core issues, the final negotiations are supposed to determine any enduring institutional arrangements that will implement the treaty, which could include a secretariat and a standing conference of parties, as well mechanisms to resolve disputes among and monitor compliance by its parties. A huge bone of contention is whether such a governance structure should take precedence over existing sectoral bodies, notably the International Seabed Authority, as well as regional fisheries management organizations.
The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to help break these logjams. To credibly lead the world, however, the U.S. will need toabandon its long-standing reluctance to enter into legally binding environmental treaties, which it too often perceives as infringements on its ability to do what it wantsrather than as useful mechanisms to secure valued outcomes.
Such insistence on absolute freedom of action has frequently been shortsighted, but it is increasingly counterproductive today, as other nations and corporations dramatically expand their activities on and exploitation of the high seas, with disastrous consequences for the marine environment. In the absence of a high seas biodiversity treaty, for instance, there is little to stop a nation or private actor operating under a flag of convenience fromundertaking ecologically destructive mining operations on a deep seabed, launching freelance climate remediation efforts at sea, or even creating floating cities mid-ocean, heedless of the impacts on marine life.
It is deeply within the U.S. national interest to voluntarily accept some international constraints on its own behavior, if, by so doing, it can prevent others from degrading the ocean commons. This is particularly true given Americas generally high regulatory standards. Historically, private U.S. corporations seeking to extract resources from the high seas have had to comply with American law, namely the National Environmental Policy Act, to ensure that they do not cause grievous harm to the ocean. While the Trump administration rolled back these procedural requirements, the Biden administration will surely reinstate them, raising an obvious question: If U.S. corporations are already subject to stringent environmental regulations, why should Washington oppose internationalizing them?
As a matter of course, the U.S. already routinely cedes freedom of action on the high seas, like when it enters into regional fisheries management organizations or accepts shipping lanes defined by the International Maritime Organization. Ratifying the BBNJ would entail similar self-limitations, but the payoff would be huge: helping topreserve the future of lifeon nearly half of the planet.
- Sailing the High Seas with Dejeros Cloud-Based Production Tools - TV Technology - October 9th, 2021
- Input wanted on changes to high seas fishing rules - The Bay's News First - SunLive - October 9th, 2021
- 9 crew of Indian vessel stranded on high seas rescued - The Statesman - October 9th, 2021
- Coast Guard rescues 9 crew members of mechanised vessal stranded in high seas - News Today - October 9th, 2021
- In Mumbai rave party bust, NCB carries out first-ever drugs search on cruise liner in high seas - Deccan Herald - October 9th, 2021
- Easy Halloween costume ideas for the continued collapse of society - Tampa Bay Times - October 9th, 2021
- What We Do In The Shadows Recap: The Siren - The Workprint - October 9th, 2021
- Trinidad and Tobago chaos over who actually owns the House of Football - Inside World Football - October 9th, 2021
- Deep seabed mining is risky. If something goes wrong, who will pay for it? - Mongabay.com - October 9th, 2021
- Students win new UH awards to protect oceans | University of Hawaii System News - UH System Current News - October 9th, 2021
- Seabed Mining: The Coast Guard's Deep Future - CIMSEC - October 9th, 2021
- SBI launches NAV-eCash Card. Check features and benefits here - Mint - October 9th, 2021
- Navigating Miocene Ocean Temperatures for Insights into the Future - Eos - October 9th, 2021
- Planning a Cruise? Here's What You Need to Know - NBC San Diego - October 9th, 2021
- National Grid in talks over plan for energy island in North Sea - The Guardian - October 9th, 2021
- A drone survives a sail into a major hurricane and "lives" to show the video - KTVZ - October 9th, 2021
- Listen closely: How sound could help improve the way we manage fisheries and conservation - Dal News - October 9th, 2021
- To solve space traffic woes, look to the high seas - MIT Technology Review - August 24th, 2021
- Who Is Going to Map the High Seas? - Hydro International - August 24th, 2021
- War on the High Seas - The Maritime Executive - August 24th, 2021
- Almost there: One more month until calmer seas, better weather - spacecityweather.com - August 24th, 2021
- Meet Rex, a Regal 417-Foot Expedition Yacht Concept With an Underwater Lounge and Helicopter Parking - Yahoo Lifestyle - August 24th, 2021
- Our first vacation fish, and other standout moments of summer 2021 | Pamelas Food Service Diary - SILive.com - August 24th, 2021
- HAWAII Hawaii County Weather Forecast for August 22, 2021 BIG ISLAND NOW - Big Island Now - August 24th, 2021
- NOAA Just Named 31 Nations That Engage in Illegal or Unregulated Fishing. Here's Why That's a Step in the Right Direction. - Earthjustice - August 24th, 2021
- Henri likely to bring rough seas to the south, possibly heavy rainfall in northern Delaware - delawarebusinessnow.com - August 24th, 2021
- Gather Round Mateys, These Arrrrre The Best Pirate Movies To Watch Right Now - Yahoo Lifestyle - August 24th, 2021
- You have what you voted for - Santa Barbara News-Press - August 24th, 2021
- Annette and a truly weird summer at the movies - Vox.com - August 24th, 2021
- As Henri Nears US Coast, Threat to Long Island Increases - East Hampton Star - August 24th, 2021
- Indias Highway Construction Is in the Fast Lane - Fair Observer - August 24th, 2021
- The Fiji Times Skipper's legacy A lover of the sea - Fiji Times - August 24th, 2021
- Chubut imposes strict measures on shrimp landings to protect the fishery - MercoPress - August 24th, 2021
- Jellyfish Found in Greece are the Least Dangerous of All - Greek Reporter - August 24th, 2021
- Indian Ocean: The maritime links of India-Malaysia - Hindustan Times - August 24th, 2021
- Shark Experts Agree, These Are The 5 Best Dive Sites In The World - Forbes - August 24th, 2021
- North Vancouver RCMP remind boaters of rules on the water during education blitz - North Shore News - August 24th, 2021
- Salinity Measurements of the Adriatic Sea Record an Unprecedented Increase - Total Croatia News - August 24th, 2021
- China and the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean - The Diplomat - June 10th, 2021
- Africa must protect the high seas before its too late - Mail and Guardian - June 10th, 2021
- SEACOR Power survivor begged God to 'calm the seas' after being swept overboard - WWLTV.com - June 10th, 2021
- Why the Ocean Needs the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act - Earthjustice - June 10th, 2021
- Ambitious treaty offers a once in a lifetime chance to protect the high seas - Euronews - June 10th, 2021
- Two Members of the Jamaica Defence Force Are First-Ever Appointed to United States Coast Guard Academy - US Embassy in Jamaica - June 10th, 2021
- Oh. My. Gawd! A Friends-themed cruise is setting sail and heres what you need to know - Woman & Home - June 10th, 2021
- Why its time we woke up and listened to the ocean - The Citizen - June 10th, 2021
- Taking Lighthouse to the Top - The SandPaper - June 10th, 2021
- 1823: WHEN A FEW BAD APPLES SPOILED THE WRECKING TRADE - Florida Keys Weekly - June 10th, 2021
- Food for sailing: Our guide to the best options - Yachting World - June 10th, 2021
- On the International Day for the Fight Against Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, Pew Advocates Discuss Their Work - The Pew Charitable... - June 10th, 2021
- These non-profits are determined to conserve the vast oceans of the Earth - YourStory - June 10th, 2021
- Beverly High graduates encouraged to enjoy the little things, do some deep introspection - Wicked Local - June 10th, 2021
- Didn't get enough of a 'Friends' fix from the reunion? How about a 'Friends'-themed cruise? - USA TODAY - June 10th, 2021
- Protecting the ocean from 5 big threats (photo gallery) | US Embassy & Consulates in Italy - US Embassy Rome - June 10th, 2021
- Tracking down mystery boats on the high seas - The Verge - February 20th, 2021
- This 262-Foot Superyacht Concept Comes With Its Own Stage for Concerts on the High Seas - Robb Report - February 20th, 2021
- Will NPFC Protect Pacific Saury by Cutting Fish Catch? China and Taiwan Might Disagree - JAPAN Forward - February 20th, 2021
- 2018 covert op that is embarrassing India - The Tribune India - February 20th, 2021
- Opinion: The other environmental treaties the US must confront - Ensia - February 20th, 2021
- China's New Coast Guard Law and Implications for Maritime Security in the East and South China Seas - Lawfare - February 20th, 2021
- AI can help reduce the risk of HIV in high-risk communities - Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences - February 20th, 2021
- 'Wicked Tuna' rivalry gives way to cooperation | Local News | newburyportnews.com - The Daily News of Newburyport - February 20th, 2021
- Croatia claims that BiH's Right to the High Seas Access has not been endangered - Sarajevo Times - February 20th, 2021
- This Sea Dragon Skyrim mod brings a dash of Sea of Thieves to Tamriel - PCGamesN - February 20th, 2021
- Sea Of Thieves: 10 Tips And Tricks To Know Before Playing - TheGamer - February 20th, 2021
- A TikToker Captured Australias Own Black Hawk Down Moment On The High Seas Of Sydney Harbour - Pedestrian TV - February 20th, 2021
- WCU professor emeritus explores the adventures of early women explorers in new book - Western Carolina University News - February 20th, 2021
- NEWPORT AREA WEATHER REPORT: Feb. 20-21 - newportri.com - February 20th, 2021
- The Staggering Decline of Oceanic Sharks and Rays The Revelator - The Revelator - February 20th, 2021
- The Future Of The Aircraft Carrier - CNBCAfrica.com - February 20th, 2021
- Hillicon Valley: Congress prepares to hold hearing on SolarWinds breach, Big Tech content moderation | Tensions rise between Capitol Hill and... - February 20th, 2021
- PES University will launch satellite to monitor ships - The New Indian Express - February 20th, 2021
- Sea of Thieves is now cross-platform compatible thanks to steam network. - Joplin Business Journal - February 20th, 2021
- What's the secret to BTS' Jimin's shoulder reveal? Seven highlights from V Live for 'BE Essential Edition' - MEAWW - February 20th, 2021
- Life and death on the Mediterranean Sea - Morning Star Online - February 20th, 2021
- This 262-Foot Superyacht Concept Comes With Its Own Stage for Concerts on the High Seas - Yahoo Lifestyle - February 17th, 2021
- Uppena movie review: Romance on the high seas - The Hindu - February 17th, 2021
- Amid rising seas, 'dry' resort is wetter than it likes - Minneapolis Star Tribune - February 17th, 2021
- Review: All the Tides of Fate by Adalyn Grace - The Nerd Daily - February 17th, 2021
- A Deep Dive Into the Sea Shanty Craze, And Why Chicago Was Ahead of the TikTok Trend - WTTW News - February 17th, 2021