Conserving the high seas

By: Rodel D. Lasco - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | March 15,2023 - 09:36 AM

In what is known as the wild west of oceans, piracy used to reign supreme until about 300 years ago. The “high seas” evoke images of adventure, the unknown, and danger. Today, the high seas refer to those portions of the oceans outside nations’ boundaries. These vast waters cover two-thirds of the world’s oceans, or half our planet’s surface.

For some time now, scientists and conservationists have been pointing out the rising exploitation of our oceans. Overfishing, dumping of pollutants, increased shipping, and climate change are transforming life in these waters in ways we do not fully comprehend. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, around 10 percent of marine organisms are already threatened with extinction, and nearly half are at risk due to climate change. On March 4, the global community finally took the first decisive action. After years of back-breaking effort, the United Nations Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) has cobbled together a High Seas Treaty designed to protect marine biodiversity and provide oversight of international waters. According to Nature (2023), the treaty is “being lauded by researchers as an important step for conservation that encourages international research collaboration without hindering science.”Among the critical issues addressed by the treaty that is relevant to the Philippines is how to share the benefits of marine “genetic resources.” We are aware of the vast untapped riches submerged in the deep seas. For example, certain biochemicals in marine organisms could tame hitherto incurable diseases. According to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, marine life could contain up to $5 trillion worth of cancer-curing drugs. Unknown to us, wealthier countries could be stealthily surveying, testing, and utilizing this biological wealth. To prevent such inequity, the treaty aims to establish a benefit sharing committee composed of experts to adjudicate what is fair.

In addition, the treaty paves the way for the establishment of marine protected areas on the high seas, consistent with the aspiration to protect 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030. This goal is critical for keeping the planet within a safe operating boundary. For example, nature-based solutions are gaining traction for addressing global warming. The treaty also calls for environmental impact assessments for activities likely to affect the oceans significantly.

However, the work is not yet done. In fact, it has only just begun. The nations participating in the BBNJ conference ran out of time to formally adopt the treaty. Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified soon enough in future meetings of the conference.

Rodel D. Lasco is one of the authors of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report. He is executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/).

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