By Kirsty McQuaid, PhD Student, Plymouth University
June 4, 2018
As I look out from the deck of RV Kilo Moana, all I can see is blue. Blue stretching in all directions, as far as the eye can go. The deep sea is defined as anything deeper than 200 meters, and makes up more than 90 percent of the biosphere. Most of the deep sea lies outside the borders of any country’s waters, in what is called the high seas or areas beyond national jurisdiction. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, an international agreement on use of the ocean), this means that the high seas and associated resources belong to all humankind.
Many researchers, including those on DeepCCZ, work tirelessly to gather information about the deep-sea environment in the high seas so that we can better manage the use of its resources and protect it from harmful activities. There are currently several different legal instruments at the regional and global levels to manage human activities in the high seas (e.g., fishing and shipping).
Deep-sea mining is regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), through UNCLOS, and environmental regulations are being developed by the ISA to ensure that mining activities in the high seas are carried out in an environmentally responsible way. A network of protected areas, called Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs), has been established in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, and one of the aims of the DeepCCZ cruise is to investigate whether this network is representative of biodiversity in the region, in line with existing ISA policies. DeepCCZ will also provide data to help the ISA establish a regional baseline for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) and better manage environmental aspects of deep-sea mining.
What is lacking from the current legal system, however, is a cross-sectoral, over-arching legal framework aimed at the protection of marine life in the high seas. Protecting the high seas environment is very difficult, as we not only know very little about it, but also require collaboration on a global scale to develop legislation for its conservation. However, all is not lost! In June 2015, a landmark resolution was adopted by United Nations member states to develop a new, international, legally binding treaty that will address the conservation and sustainable use of marine life in the high seas. This legislation is currently being developed, led by the United Nations, and will build and elaborate on UNCLOS. It will include regulations on creating new marine protected areas in the high seas, improving environmental assessments, addressing sharing of benefits derived from resources in the high seas, and improving transparency of activities on the high seas.
This new legislation will provide a mechanism for the conservation of marine life in the high seas and a framework into which evidence from cruises like DeepCCZ can feed, to ensure that conservation efforts are informed by the best available scientific knowledge.