New ocean threats underline need for urgent action to protect the high seas

Marine policy experts today warned that a crisis situation is developing in oceans that will require urgent measures and stronger international law to avoid catastrophic declines in ocean productivity

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New threats to the marine environment are arising from unregulated activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction such as ocean iron fertilization, seismic testing and bioprospecting, experts have warned.

International marine policy experts convening in New York warned that, in conjunction with the predicted effects of climate change, these activities threaten to undermine the ocean’s ability to sustain life and to regulate the atmosphere which we breathe.

Among the urgent measures identified by the expert group was a call for the establishment of an Intergovernmental Panel on the Oceans to better inform policy-making, in much the same way as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently does. 

“Overfishing, destructive fishing practices, such as high seas bottom trawling, and other extractive activities have already resulted in serious declines in global fish stocks and marine biodiversity,” said Kristina Gjerde, High Seas Policy Advisor to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). “The only way to make progress is through an ongoing and concerted international effort.”

Recent proposals to mitigate climate change through ocean iron fertilization and other “geo-engineering” solutions highlight a number of gaps in the legal framework and governance regime for the high seas. 

“While the international legal regime for protection of the marine environment contains a number of broad environmental principles, these principles are not well defined, and as a result, they have not yet been implemented effectively,” explains Professor Rosemary Rayfuse of the University of New South Wales. “There is still a misconception that the high seas are inexhaustible and that they are a limitless dumping ground for human waste. The increasing number of threats to this vast area highlights the need for urgent action.”

Building on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the group also called for the development of a UN Declaration of Principles for the protection of the marine environment and its biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction as an essential first step towards ensuring the consistent application of modern standards to protect ocean health and services.

The organization of a high-level fishing summit among key fish-consuming nations was seen as a key step towards developing a common market-based approach to eradicate illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and to improve implementation of key biodiversity protection measures.

Lastly, the group identified that immediate action is needed to implement effective environmental impact assessments for all human activities on the high seas including the proposed “geo-engineering” solutions, coupled with more effective compliance and enforcement mechanisms.

“The sustainable management and protection of the high seas requires us to acknowledge our dependence on the oceans as the lungs of the planet and as a major provider of food and ecosystem services. Humanity is rapidly pushing the limits of the productivity and carrying capacity of the oceans,” concluded Gjerde.


Notes to editors


  • The Experts Informal Workshop on High Seas Governance in the 21st Century was held from October 17 to 19, 2007, and brought together over 50 global experts on international marine policy, science, law and economics to address urgent concerns about how to govern the high seas and what global priorities should be when it comes to the protection of the marine environment in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

  • The Experts Informal Workshop met in the New York offices of the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton as an initiative of the Sub-Group on High Seas Governance of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, a volunteer network of environmental law and policy experts from all regions of the world. Kristina M. Gjerde and Rosemary Rayfuse were the co-chairs.

  • The Workshop was organized with the cooperation and support of The World Conservation Union (IUCN), the University of New South Wales Law School, Pace Law School, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Bard Center for Environmental Policy, and Juice Energy, Inc. Major financial support was provided by the Australian Mission to the United Nations, the Australian Department of Environment and Water Resources, the JM Kaplan Fund and the Netherlands Ministry for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.

For more information or to set up interviews, please contact:

Kristina Gjerde, IUCN High Seas Policy Advisor, Poland. Tel: +48-22-754-1803, +48-22-737-2300; Cell phone +48 50 117 20 48; Email:

Rosemary Rayfuse, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Tel: + 61 2 9385 2059; Email:

Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head IUCN Global Marine Programme, Switzerland: +41 22 999 0204; Cell phone + 41 78 477 14 00; Email:

Sarah Halls, Media Relations Officer, IUCN, Switzerland, Tel. +41 22 999 0127;

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About the World Conservation Union (IUCN)

Created in 1948, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) brings together 84 States, 108 government agencies, 800 plus NGOs, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 147 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. The Union’s mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

The Union is the world's largest environmental knowledge network and has helped over 75 countries to prepare and implement national conservation and biodiversity strategies. The Union is a multicultural, multilingual organization with 1,000 staff located in 62 countries. Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland.

Work area: 
Global Policy
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