Five sites in the High Seas, which belong to no country, could be recognised under the World Heritage Convention, according to a new report by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the advisory body on natural World Heritage. The report has been launched today from a submersible at the edge of one of the most iconic of these sites – the Sargasso Sea.
“Just as on land, the deepest and most remote ocean harbours globally unique places that deserve recognition, just as we have given to the Grand Canyon National Park in the United States of America, to the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador or the Serengeti National Park of the United Republic of Tanzania,” states Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, in the preface to the report.
The five sites identified in the report, titled World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time has Come, illustrate different exceptional ecosystems from biodiversity-rich areas to giant undersea volcanoes found in the open ocean, which covers more than half the planet. However none of these sites can be inscribed on the World Heritage List because they are outside of any national jurisdiction
They include: the Costa Rica Thermal Dome (Pacific Ocean), a unique oceanic oasis which provides critical habitat for multiple threatened species; the White Shark Café (Pacific Ocean), the only known gathering point for white sharks in the north Pacific; the Sargasso Sea (Atlantic Ocean), home to an iconic ecosystem built around a concentration of floating algae; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field (Atlantic Ocean), an 800 metre-deep area dominated by carbonate monoliths up to 60 metres high; and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island in the subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean.
The report also highlights these exceptional places are exposed to threats, such as climate change, deep seabed mining, navigation or plastic pollution. To ensure they can benefit from the highest level of protection conferred by the World Heritage Convention, adjustments to the inscription process are necessary, since only countries can propose sites for the World Heritage List. The report explores the different ways the World Heritage Convention may one day apply to these wonders of the open ocean.
“The High Seas have outstanding value on the global scale, yet they have little protection,” says Dan Laffoley, Principal Advisor on Marine Science and Conservation for IUCN and co-author of the report. “These areas are exposed to threats such as pollution and over-fishing, it is therefore crucial to mobilise the international community to ensure their long-term conservation. The report is a step in that direction and the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September will further discuss how areas beyond national jurisdiction can be protected.”
The 2016 IUCN Congress is expected to see key decisions on improving the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas of the high seas under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It will take place in Hawai‘i, USA from 1 to 10 September.
The publication World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time has Come was made possible thanks to the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, the French Marine Protected Area Agency and Jaeger-LeCoultre. The initiative also received support from the Nekton Foundation.