Portugal can help the high seas treaty enter into force by 2025 | Questions and answers

The 52 countries of the Coalition of High Ambition that helped to approve the document, including Portugal, have the responsibility to ratify it quickly, say non-governmental organizations.

What is the high seas treaty and what is new?

Over the weekend, negotiations at the United Nations in New York to create a Treaty for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (known by its English acronym BBNJ) arrived in good harbor, after a final marathon of 36 hours. “It’s probably the most important thing for the oceans in the last few decades. It will bring ocean governance into the 21st century, allowing us to protect the high seas for the first time, which is half of the planet”, said to PÚBLICO Rebecca Hubbard, director of the Alliance for the High Seas, a partnership of non-governmental organizations -governmental organizations that support this treaty.

What is the main objective of the treaty?

The idea is to create a network of marine protected areas on the high seas, that is, in areas of the ocean that are beyond the national jurisdiction of each State and which are, at the same time, the heritage of humanity and of no one. “Essentially, these are areas that have ecosystems with very high or unique biodiversity. where there are hydrothermal vents. But they can also be important areas for feeding or reproducing certain marine species”, explains Rebecca Hubbard.

Is it possible to give examples of places that could be classified in this way?

Yes. One of them, identified by the Alliance for the High Seas, is the Lost City – a large field of hydrothermal vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. There are about 30 chimneys on top of the Atlantis seamount. Next to hydrothermal vents there are unique forms of life, still poorly understood. It is thought that life on Earth itself may have started in such places.

Or the Sargasso Sea, delimited by four currents of the Atlantic Ocean, which make up the so-called Atlantic Giro current. Despite having very transparent water, it is usually covered with algae mats of the type Sargassum. They call it the “golden forest of the high seas”, because these floating algae provide a habitat for a huge variety of species, in addition to sequestering carbon and emit oxygen into the atmosphere.

When can the treaty enter into force?

First, it will have to be ratified by at least 60 countries. “It may take some time, but we have the 52 countries of the High Ambition Coalition for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction [da qual Portugal faz parte]. It would be good if it entered into force in 2025, when the next United Nations Oceans Conference takes place in France”, considered Rebecca Hubbard.

How important could this treaty be for Portugal?

Although the agreement focuses on areas outside national jurisdictions, its application is important for a coastal country like Portugal, which borders the high seas regime, a source from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told PÚBLICO. A treaty for the high seas could be a privileged platform for socializing standards and best practices: “A channel to enhance what we do well, but also an inspirational reference for what we can improve”, in the view of the MNE. Portugal already plays an active role in international organizations with competence to approve marine protected areas on the high seas, such as the OSPAR Convention, for the preservation of the marine environment in the North East Atlantic.

Portugal, as a whole, accounts for 93 marine protected areas, with different types of classification, which cover about 7% of the waters and seabed under national jurisdiction.

What were the most difficult issues to negotiate?

Sharing the benefits obtained from marine genetic resources, or from genetic sequences of marine organisms that can be contained in a database, was one of the most complicated issues. The treaty devotes a good number of articles to it, in which it is stipulated that all parties to the treaty, “whatever their geographical location”, may develop activities to investigate or exploit marine genetic resources in areas of the ocean beyond of national jurisdiction. But any benefits “should be shared in a fair and equitable way” between countries, and contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine species.

The non-monetary benefits can be, for example, the guarantee that the generated knowledge is accessible in databases – and the signatory countries must take the legislative and administrative measures for this to happen.

As for possible profits from inventions obtained from marine genetic resources (such as a new medicine), the Conference of the Parties to this treaty will create a voluntary fund. This fund may receive, for example, “payments or contributions related to the marketing of products”, a fee paid periodically based on a certain number of indicators or “other ways decided by the Conference of the Parties”.

Wasn’t there a question about whether fish should be included in these calculations of marine genetic resources?

Outside these provisions on sharing the benefits of marine genetic resources are “fish and other marine resources that are used in fisheries and related activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction”.

Does this treaty have any impact on protecting deep sea mining ecosystems?

The International Seabed Authority is officially responsible for deep sea mining, explains Rebecca Hubbard. “There may be some impact on the mining activity, regarding the assessments of environmental impact [feitas em alto-mar]. However, this is one of the areas where the text of the treaty is not as strong as it could be. It is an area that we would like to see reinforced in the future”, he advanced.

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