Protecting our global ocean commons

Two-thirds of the world’s ocean is beyond national jurisdiction, where existing regulations regarding activities such as fishing do not adequately conserve biodiversity. With marine life in these global ocean commons facing increasing threats from overexploitation, pollution, climate change, and the emerging threat of seabed mining, the world urgently needs a strong, conservation-focused, legally binding treaty to govern the high seas, writes Lauren Kubiak of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an IUCN Member organisation.

Stoloteuthis squid

The high seas, the area of ocean beyond national jurisdiction, comprises two-thirds of the global ocean and covers nearly half the planet. It provides food, jobs, oxygen, climate stabilisation, and other crucial benefits for humans and the global ecosystem. Yet for generations we have treated the high seas as though its resources were inexhaustible and its biodiversity indestructible.

Effective conservation and management of the high seas is hampered by an antiquated system of regional and sectoral bodies that govern different types of human activities in an inconsistent and uncoordinated fashion, leading to overfishing, habitat destruction, and noise, chemical, and plastic pollution. The effects of poor management have been exacerbated by climate change and related impacts: the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat from climate change and one-quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions humans have generated by burning fossil fuels. The ocean is the warmest it has been since measurements began, the most acidic it has been in the last 14 million years, and is losing oxygen, critical for marine life.

Conservation and management of the high seas is hampered by an antiquated system of regional and sectoral bodies that govern different types of human activities leading to overfishing, habitat destruction, and noise, chemical, and plastic pollution.

A new treaty for the high seas

Fortunately, there is a worldwide effort underway that can help address many of the threats our oceans face: governments at the United Nations are currently negotiating a legally binding treaty to improve conservation of biodiversity in the high seas. The new treaty will include provisions that could allow for the creation of fully protected marine protected areas (MPAs), establish uniform environmental impact assessment and management standards, and require more equitable distribution of potential benefits stemming from the development of genetic resources of the high seas.

The treaty was set to be finalized by the end of 2020; however, that timeline has shifted due to the pandemic, so IUCN members still have the opportunity to make their voices heard in favour of a strong, conservation-oriented high seas regime. One such opportunity is IUCN Motion 126 - Advancing conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in the ocean beyond national jurisdiction. NRDC and 13 co-sponsors put forward that motion for the next IUCN World Conservation Congress, to be held in Marseille, France from January 7 to 15, 2021.

The motion calls on governments to adopt a treaty that contains elements crucial for effective high seas conservation. Among other provisions, the motion aims to ensure that the final treaty text provides for the rapid establishment of a well-managed network of highly- and fully-protected MPAs, rigorous and science-based assessment and management of individual and cumulative effects of human activities and climate change, and effective institutional arrangements to ensure full implementation, monitoring, compliance, and enforcement. The treaty should also allow for effective capacity building and transfer of marine technology, and fair and equitable sharing of monetary and non-monetary benefits from development of pharmaceuticals and other innovations from marine genetic resources. Importantly, the treaty should ensure that, if environmental assessments find that an activity poses significant adverse effects to areas beyond national jurisdiction, such activity is managed to prevent such impacts or is not permitted to proceed.

Brittle Star Colony

Dozens of ophiacanthid brittle stars cling to the branches of a primnoid octocoral colony on an isolated underwater volcanic mountain in the western Pacific Ocean. Scientists believe these fragile stars get their food from the water column rather than feeding directly on the coral, a process called suspension feeding.

Photo: © NOAA


Implementing these provisions would vastly improve the fate of biodiversity in the high seas, by ensuring that conservation concerns are systematically taken into account whenever existing and new human activities have the potential to severely affect our ocean. As industrial activities expand into areas beyond national jurisdiction, the need for action is becoming more urgent. For example, our international ocean faces a new threat: deep-sea mining. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the entity responsible for managing the seabed in areas beyond national jurisdiction, is working to finalise deep-sea mineral exploitation regulations and to allow mining to commence shortly after.

Seabed mining would cause deep-sea destruction

The ISA has a mandate to protect the flora and fauna of the deep sea and to act on behalf of humankind as a whole. However, scientists have concluded that it is inevitable that there will be irreversible biodiversity loss and extinctions if deep-sea mining is allowed to proceed.

Mining for seabed mineral resources will require large, tractor-like machines to scrape the seabed, unleashing a massive sediment cloud and destroying deep sea creatures.

The deep sea, located beyond the continental shelf at depths greater than 200 meters, makes up 90% of habitat in the ocean. The deep sea supports some of the most unique and diverse ecosystems on the planet. New discoveries of deep-sea organisms are helping scientists fill in the blanks on the origins of life on earth and providing new routes for medicines. Many species inhabiting the deep sea reproduce and recover slowly, making them uniquely vulnerable to human disturbance, which they are already facing in the form of plastics, pollutants, and climate impacts including acidification, warming, and deoxygenation.

Mining for seabed mineral resources including polymetallic nodules, cobalt crusts, and hydrothermal vents will require large, tractor-like machines to scrape the seabed, unleashing a massive sediment cloud and destroying deep sea creatures - which may be thousands of years old corals or sponges, or organisms scientists have yet to discover. Polymetallic nodules and crusts take millions of years to develop; removing them would permanently destroy the critical habitat they provide. An experiment conducted in the late 1980s to determine the potential impacts of seabed mining’s strip-mining-like method shows virtually no recovery of the seabed more than 30 years later

Potential impacts from deep sea mining

Damage from mining to the sea floor and pollution from mining processes have the potential to force entire species to extinction – many yet to be discovered.

Photo: © IUCN


In addition to direct habitat and species destruction, seabed mining will release a sediment plume that may drift over large areas of the ocean, suffocating or blocking sunlight from organisms in the deep sea or that live in the water column. Spills from mining vessels could release fuel or toxic substances to the marine environment, and noise and light pollution will affect organisms from the deep-sea all through the water column. Noise travels over four times more quickly through water than air, disturbing the animals that rely on sound for navigation and communication, and impacting creatures up and down the food chain.

Far safer alternatives for procuring materials, such as recycling, re-using, and pursuing alternatives – exist and can be further expanded.

These disturbances have led scientists to conclude that it is impossible to conduct deep-sea mining without causing the extinction of some of the unique species that inhabit the deep sea, many of which are still unknown. That is why NRDC co-sponsored IUCN Motion 069 – Protection of deep-ocean ecosystems and biodiversity through a moratorium on seabed mining. The deep ocean cannot afford the potential destruction from deep-sea mining. Risks are poorly understood, it is not feasible to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment, and far safer alternatives for procuring materials, such as recycling, re-using, and pursuing alternatives – exist and can be further expanded.

Bathymodiolus Marisindicus

The Bathymodiolus marisindicus lives near deep-sea hydrothermal vents and is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. According to the Red List assessment, “mineral extraction at or adjacent to the sites would drive this species to [critically endangered status] very rapidly.”

Photo: © David Shale


IUCN members have the unique opportunity to influence two international processes that will determine the fate of the ocean for generations to come. By supporting these motions and engaging in these international negotiations, IUCN members can ensure that our international waters and deep-sea ecosystems recover from the threats they are facing and continue to support life on earth.

Climate change
Sustainable development

Lauren Kubiak is a senior policy analyst in the oceans division at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), an IUCN Member, where she works to improve management and conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems of the high seas. She also works to minimize the environmental impacts of offshore energy and mineral development, and previously worked on the United States’ first federal carbon standard on power plants as a policy analyst in NRDC’s energy program. Kubiak earned her bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees in earth systems from Stanford University, during which she conducted oceanographic research in the Equatorial Pacific. She is based in New York City.


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