Marine protection falls short of the 2020 target to safeguard 10% of the world’s oceans. A UN treaty and lessons from Antarctica could help



John B. Weller, Author provided

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, University of Colorado Boulder

Two-thirds of the world’s oceans fall outside national jurisdictions – they belong to no one and everyone.

These international waters, known as the high seas, harbour a plethora of natural resources and millions of unique marine species.

But they are being damaged irretrievably. Research shows unsustainable fisheries are one of the greatest threats to marine biodiversity in the high seas.

According to a 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services, 66% of the world’s oceans are experiencing detrimental and increasing cumulative impacts from human activities.

In the high seas, human activities are regulated by a patchwork of international legal agreements under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But this piecemeal approach is failing to safeguard the ecosystems we depend on.




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Empty pledges

A decade ago, world leaders updated an earlier pledge to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) with a mandate to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.

But MPAs cover only 7.66% of the ocean across the globe. Most protected sites are in national waters where it’s easy to implement and manage protection under the provision of a single country.

In the more remote areas of the high seas, only 1.18% of marine ecosystems have been gifted sanctuary.

The Southern Ocean accounts for a large portion of this meagre percentage, hosting two MPAs. The South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA covers 94,000 square kilometres, while the Ross Sea region MPA stretches across more than 2 million square kilometres, making it the largest in the world.

Weddell seal pup and mother
Currently, the world’s largest marine protected area is in the Ross Sea region off Antarctica.
Natasha Gardiner, CC BY-ND

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is responsible for this achievement. Unlike other international fisheries management bodies, the commission’s legal convention allows for the closing of marine areas for conservation purposes.

A comparable mandate for MPAs in other areas of the high seas has been nowhere in sight — until now.




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A new ocean treaty

In 2017, the UN started negotiations towards a new comprehensive international treaty for the high seas. The treaty aims to improve the conservation and sustainable use of marine organisms in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It would also implement a global legal mechanism to establish MPAs in international waters.

This innovative international agreement provides an opportunity to work across institutional boundaries towards comprehensive high seas governance and protection. It is crucial to use lessons drawn from existing high seas marine protection initiatives, such as those in the Southern Ocean, to inform the treaty’s development.

The final round of treaty negotiations is pending, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and significant detail within the treaty’s draft text remains undeveloped and open for further debate.

Lessons from Southern Ocean management

CCAMLR comprises 26 member states (including the European Union) and meets annually to make conservation-based decisions by unanimous consensus. In 2002, the commission committed to establishing a representative network of MPAs in Antarctica in alignment with globally agreed targets for the world’s oceans.

The two established MPAs in the high seas are far from an ecologically representative network of protection. In October 2020, the commission continued negotiations for three additional MPAs, which would meet the 10% target for the Southern Ocean, if agreed.

But not a single proposal was agreed. For one of the proposals, the East Antarctic MPA, this marks the eighth year of failed negotiations.

Fisheries interests from a select few nations, combined with complex geopolitics, are thwarting progress towards marine protection in the Antarctic.

Map of marine protected areas around Antarctica.
CCAMLR’s two established MPAs (in grey) are the South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA and the Ross Sea region MPA. Three proposed MPAs (hashed) include the East Antarctic, Domain 1 and Weddell Sea proposals.
C. Brooks, CC BY-ND

CCAMLR’s progress towards its commitment for a representative MPA network may have ground to a halt, but the commission has gained invaluable knowledge about the challenges in establishing MPAs in international waters. CCAMLR has demonstrated that with an effective convention and legal framework, MPAs in the high seas are possible.

The commission understands the extent to which robust scientific information must inform MPA proposals and how to navigate inevitable trade-offs between conservation and economic interests. Such knowledge is important for the UN treaty process.




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As the high seas treaty moves closer to adoption, it stands to outpace the commission regarding progress towards improved marine conservation. Already, researchers have identified high-priority areas for protection in the high seas, including in Antarctica.

Many species cross the Southern Ocean boundary into other regions. This makes it even more important for CCAMLR to integrate its management across regional fisheries organisations – and the new treaty could facilitate this engagement.

But the window of time is closing with only one round of negotiation left for the UN treaty. Research tells us Antarctic decision-makers need to use the opportunity to ensure the treaty supports marine protection commitments.

Stronger Antarctic leadership is urgently needed to safeguard the Southern Ocean — and beyond.The Conversation

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, Assistant Professor Environmental Studies, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Australians need a national environment protection agency to safeguard their health


David Shearman, University of Adelaide

Australia needs an independent national agency charged with safeguarding the environment and delivering effective climate policy, according to a new campaign launched today by a coalition of environmental, legal and medical NGOs.

Most Western democracies have established national regulatory action, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency – yet Australia is a notable exception.

Today in Canberra, the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) will hold a symposium on the reform of environmental laws in Australia. If enacted, these proposals would offer protection to Australia’s declining biodiversity and environment, as well as helping to safeguard Australians’ health.




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The proposal would involve establishing a high-level Commonwealth Environment Commission (CEC) that would be responsible for Commonwealth strategic environmental instruments, in much the same way that the Reserve Bank is in charge of economic levers such as interest rates.

The new CEC would manage a nationally coordinated system of environmental data collection, monitoring, auditing and reporting, the conduct of environmental inquiries of a strategic nature, and the provision of strategic advice to the Commonwealth government on environmental matters, either upon request or at its own initiative. The necessary outcomes would then be delivered by government and ministers via a newly created National Environmental Protection Authority (NEPA).

Tomorrow, this call will be echoed by a major alliance of leading environmental groups, including Doctors for the Environment Australia. Similar to the CEC/NEPA proposal, this group has called for an independent “National Sustainability Commission” that would develop conservation plans, monitor invasive species, and set nationally binding air pollution standards and climate adaptation plans.

The new body would replace the EPBC Act, which has failed to deliver the protections it promised in key areas such as land clearing and species protection, and has no role in limiting climate change which is a major factor in species loss.

The new agencies would be in a position to provide authoritative and understandable consensus reports, similar to those produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but with a stronger legal basis on which the government should act on its advice.

Why change the system?

The rationale for reform is clear. Only last week the International Energy Agency reported that Earth’s greenhouse emissions have increased yet again. Meanwhile, extreme weather events have increased, while wildlife diversity is on the decline.

Having failed so far to arrest these trends, the governments of countries with high standards of living and high greenhouse emissions should be held particularly accountable. Clearing land and burning forest for firewood are understandable survival strategies for the poor, but unacceptable in rich nations.

Australia’s national laws would be strengthened to address the challenge of climate change and ensure we can mitigate, adapt to and be resilient in the face of a warming world.

Action on climate change, essential to protect biodiversity, is also vital to protect human health as a quarter of world disease has its root causes in environmental change, degradation and pollution.

The World Health Organisation regards climate change as the greatest health threat of the 21st century, a view recognised by the statements of the Australian Medical Association and Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Already, it is responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide, and that figure is projected to rise to 250,000 by 2030. In Australia, air quality reform could prevent an estimated 3,000 air pollution deaths per year.

Causes of current inaction

There are fundamentally two causes of inaction. First, in this increasingly
complex world, governments now more than ever need impartial advice based on the best available evidence. Yet all too often, such advice is politicised, ignored, or both.

Second, in leading democracies – particularly in Australia with its relatively short election cycles – the pressure to focus on re-election prospects dictates that governments emphasise jobs, growth, and living standards. It takes strong leadership to promote the interests of future generations as well as current ones.

It seems counterintuitive to suggest that for its survival, a government might need to delegate decisions for human survival to systems beyond its immediate political control. Yet it already does delegate crucial decisions, such as the monthly interest rate calls made by the Reserve Bank.

A newly created CEC and NEPA would be charged with safeguarding the climate, wildlife, fresh water and clean air. It would be in a position to improve air quality to standards recommended by the World Health Organization, protect water quality, and deliver effective climate change mitigation and adaptation policy uniformly in all states.




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The success of such a national system would manifest itself in a growing number of decisions similar to the recent rejection of the expansion of Stage 3 of the Acland coal mine. The judge in that case turned it down on the basis of a range of health and environmental transgressions, yet it is currently more common for states to approve this type of developments rather than reject them.

The ConversationNationally enforceable standards for resource developments are likely to bring effective preventative health benefits, as well as certainty of process. These reforms present an overdue opportunity for Australia to offer leadership and catch up on lost time, to ameliorate the progression of climate change and biodiversity loss, and thus lessen their future impacts.

David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.