Governing areas beyond national jurisdiction

  • Nearly two-thirds of the world’s ocean lies in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), which are home to unique species and ecosystems.
  • Fragmented legal frameworks leave biodiversity in ABNJ vulnerable to growing threats.
  • The degradation of biodiversity in ABNJ affects the ocean’s capacity to provide resources necessary for human survival.
  • Negotiations are underway to create a new international instrument under the UN Convention on the Law, which would help close the existing ABNJ governance gap.
  • A new international instrument can provide a global framework for marine protected areas in ABNJ, ensure states assess impacts of potentially harmful activities, and facilitate inclusive scientific research that enables the equitable sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources.

What is the issue ?

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s ocean is beyond national jurisdiction – where no single state has authority. This area reaches depths of over 10 km and represents 95% of the Earth’s total habitat by volume. Areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) are home to significant biodiversity, including unique species that have evolved to survive extreme heat, cold, salinity, pressure and darkness.

The dark blue areas of the map represent areas beyond national jurisdiction © Wikimedia Commons Photo: The dark blue areas of the map represent areas beyond national jurisdiction © Wikimedia Commons

Less than 0.0001 percent of this immense area has been explored, but there is evidence that ecosystems and species in ABNJ have become seriously degraded because of human activities.

There is no comprehensive global framework for the conservation and sustainable use of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction to halt and prevent further degradation from human activities.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides an international legal regime that governs the ocean. It creates an obligation to conserve the marine environment, but it does not provide specific mechanisms or processes for conserving marine biodiversity in ABNJ. Other legal instruments address parts of the problem, such as unsustainable fishing or pollution from ships, or specific geographical areas, such as the Antarctic.

However, a sectoral approach cannot address the multiple pressures on the ocean, and the different ways they interact. Regional approaches will not be sufficient either given the large-scale connectivity of the marine ecosystem, including long migratory pathways for species such as sharks, sea turtles, whales and salmon, as well as large-scale ocean currents.

Maritime zones and rights under UNCLOS Photo: Maritime zones and rights under UNCLOS © Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) and the Arctic Council

Negotiations are underway to create an Implementing Agreement to UNCLOS, which would help close the existing ABNJ governance gap and ensure the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in these areas.

Why is it important ?

Scientists caution that failure to take swift and effective action to address threats to biodiversity in ABNJ could compromise the ocean’s capacity to provide resources and services necessary for human survival. Ecosystems in ABNJ are affected by the cumulative effects of fishing, shipping and other sectors.

Two-thirds of fish stocks in ABNJ are being fished beyond sustainable limits. Overfishing disrupts marine communities and creates an imbalance between species, with commercially important fishes unable to replenish their stocks.

Biodiversity in ABNJ is also impacted by noise and toxic spills from ships, which can disrupt communication among animals and displace them from their preferred breeding or feeding grounds. Marine debris entangles marine animals, causing severe injuries and deaths. Emerging activities such as deep-sea mining have the potential to destroy habitats and wipe out species in ABNJ.

Existing stressors are made worse by climate change, with the ocean disproportionately affected by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and heat content, affecting its ability to regulate the Earth’s climate and sustain marine life. Increasing temperatures for instance are causing mass movements as species search for favourable environmental conditions.

Billions of people depend on the ocean for food and income; and marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people. The vast pool of marine genetic resources provides innovative medicines and other products to the medical and pharmaceutical sectors. Phytoplankton, kelp and algal plankton in the ocean produce more than half of the oxygen we breathe as a by-product of photosynthesis.

The ocean provides many benefits to humans Photo: The ocean provides many benefits to humans © NOAA

What can be done?

The new agreement under UNCLOS could ensure the protection of biodiversity in ABNJ by providing for:

  • A network of marine protected areas
    The agreement could provide a means of creating a global, integrated network of marine protected areas (MPAs) – areas set aside for long-term conservation – which would support ecological connectivity and climate change resilience, and help preserve species and ecosystems. MPAs range from strictly protected marine reserves to areas allowing sustainable use of resources. Restriction of human activities in ecologically or biologically significant areas is an important means to prevent environmental degradation.
  • Equitable sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources
    The agreement could guide research collaborations between scientists, industry and states involving marine genetic resources, by providing procedures for access and sharing of benefits from these resources. Facilitation of developing countries’ involvement in marine genetic research can enhance results and lead to technical advances that benefit all.
  • Standards for environmental impact assessments
    Mandatory minimum standards for screening, scoping, conducting and monitoring Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Strategic Environment Assessments, as well as best practice guidelines for assessments, would improve consistency, legal certainty, and the implementation of measures to protect the marine environment.
  • Capacity building and technology transfer
    Effective conservation of the world’s biodiversity requires significant technical and technological capacity. The agreement can create mechanisms and requirements for capacity building and technology transfer that will enable its implementation and protect biodiversity in ABNJ.

Implementation of the agreement will require appropriate institutional arrangements. A clearing house mechanism established under the agreement could coordinate marine resources benefit sharing, as well as EIA and MPA processes. Additionally, a Scientific and Technical Body could independently guide, advice and evaluate EIA and MPA processes. A global fund could also be set up to support the implementation of the agreement, including funding capacity building programmes.

More information:

IUCN Marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

IUCN Marine Biodiversity Matrix of Suggestions

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