BLUE hosts London high seas conference and launches report on protection of nature in international waters

June 11, 2019


On June 5, Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) brought together over a hundred delegates to discuss how to secure an ambitious global deal to protect nature in the high seas. Held in the historic Navy Board Rooms in Somerset House, the event fell between the second and third BBNJ (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction) negotiations at the United Nations and was kindly supported by DP World and The Ian Fleming Estate.

The goal of the day was to better understand what is at stake for high seas biodiversity, elevate ambition for its conservation and also highlight the importance of these negotiations to achieve 30 per cent of ocean protected by 2030.

BLUE launched its vision document on the protection of the high seas, authored by Professor Callum Roberts. You can download a copy here.

Learning from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, when a ‘high ambition coalition’ of countries united to secure an ambitious commitment from the world, BLUE invited delegates to raise their ambition on the issue of high seas biodiversity conservation. The future of nature in 43 per cent of Earth’s surface and the stability of our climate is at stake.

BLUE trustee Sofia Blount introduced the day, outlining the threats to high seas biodiversity and the opportunity to protect them. She said that despite falling outside national jurisdiction, we all own the high seas and have a stake in what happens to them.

Professor Callum Roberts of the University of York pointed out the once in a generation opportunity to protect life on the high seas that these negotiations represent and the risk that if we do not, we threaten the whole functioning of Earth’s life support system. Callum highlighted the importance and plight of meso-pelagic fish and the need for an ecologically-coherent network of high seas MPAs to resist climate change.

IUCN Senior Advisor Kristina Gjerde said that this truly could be a “Paris Agreement” moment for the ocean. She also showed that as stocks of fish species collapse, their genetic diversity also falls, further reducing their ability to adapt to climate change. She thanked the High Seas Alliance, the coalition of NGOs dedicated to this issue, for their commitment and collaboration in a process that has been active since 2002.

Will McCallum from Greenpeace acknowledged the long journey to reach this treaty, but pointed out that it is just the start of the journey towards environmental health, with the recently-released global roadmap to 30 per cent by 2030 articulating this point. Healthy oceans for future generations need action now, he said.

Maria Damanaki of The Nature Conservancy pointed out that without regulation, the resources of the high seas only benefit wealthy nations, with five countries taking 70 per cent of high seas fish. The treaty needs teeth, Maria said, it needs a governing body that cannot be vetoed and operates on the precautionary principle. She finished with the statement: “To go fast, go alone; to go far, go together.”

Dr Rashid Sumaila made clear that improving labour standards and removing subsidies would cause high seas fisheries to close because they would not be economical. He pointed out that in the high seas fish grow slowly and live a long time, so fishing is mining, not harvesting. He ended with a clear call to turn the high seas into a ‘fish bank’ for the world by closing them to fishing. In the subsequent discussion, BLUE trustee Tom Appleby asked an important question – “if you could put one line into the treaty, what would it be?”

The second session of the day started with Rear Admiral Dr Chris Parry, who gave insight that within ten years nothing that happens at sea will be undetectable. With quantum technology, boat wakes will be visible for a month. The extent to which the military and conservationists have complementary goals was shown, with major opportunities to collaborate in the future.

Siddharth Chakravarty made a fascinating case for IUU fishing on the high seas not being a matter of good and bad and that abuses were common (and sometimes far more grievous) in regulated vessels. Jeff Ardron of the Commonwealth Secretariat pointed out the huge opportunity of Commonwealth countries to be conservation leaders. While clear not to take an official position on the high seas treaty negotiations, Jeff made one of the most important statements of the day. A country, and it could be the UK post-Brexit, needs to stand up and lead the world in terms of ambition on this topic. A discussion was facilitated by BLUE Head of Policy, Adrian Gahan.

After lunch, the Netflix Our Planet series director and producer, Hugh Pearson showed incredible footage from the high seas and made it clear that we cannot survive without a healthy ocean.

The afternoon saw four breakout groups; political, legal, deep sea mining and high seas management. Breakouts operated under Chatham House rules but were synthesised afterwards by four chairs moderated by Steve Simpson from Exeter University/Blue Planet II.

The report of the day will detail findings from this session but Luke Pollard MP summarised the political breakout by saying that we need more urgency and to provide politicians with something to champion. A high ambition coalition on 30 per cent by 2030, which acknowledges the importance of the BBNJ negotiations in reaching this point, could be just that. We need countries to begin this process now. The day was closed by BLUE’s Executive Director, Charles Clover, who said that there seemed to be no dispute with the ambition for marine protected areas on the high seas with a review every five years.

We are at a critical moment for the future of nature in the high seas. The BBNJ negotiations will reconvene in August 2019 at the United Nations, at which the details of the treaty will be ironed out ahead of being signed (in theory) at the fourth and final negotiations in early 2020. This will mark the end of an eighteen-year process but it will also mark the start of a journey for how biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction is managed.

Dan Crockett from BLUE, who organised the event with support from the BLUE team, said: “The key message here is ambition. What is being discussed at the United Nations affects the future of the planet and humanity, who collectively own the high seas. The opportunity to create a ‘Paris Agreement for the Ocean’ is urgent and a strong, legally-binding treaty result will pave the way towards protecting 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030. The day set a new level of ambition for high seas conservation and framed the opportunity for any country to stand up and take an ambitious stance on this topic.

“We hope that the Blue Marine Foundation vision, so eloquently articulated by Professor Callum Roberts, will pave the way for this to happen. Thank you to all speakers and delegates for a brilliant day helping to define an issue that affects us all. We look forward to sharing a report and film from the conference, which will be released later in the year. Thank you also to DP World and the Ian Fleming Estate for supporting the event.”


Read A BLUE Vision for the High Seas.

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