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Inside the United Nations' Plan to Govern Marine Environments That Sit Outside Any National Jurisdiction

High seas comprise about two-thirds of the oceans—and no one body or agency is tasked with their governance.

The fourth and final meeting of a United Nations Preparatory Committee ended last week with a recommendation that the U.N. General Assembly convene treaty negotiations aimed at protecting the high seas.

The so-called high seas comprise more than 40 percent of Earth's surface and about two-thirds of the oceans. They are vast areas that lie 200 nautical miles or more from shore—in other words, beyond any national jurisdiction. That means that, while the high seas can be said to belong to everyone, no one body or agency is tasked with their governance and there is no comprehensive management structure in place that is capable of protecting the marine life that relies on them.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2015 calling for a preparatory committee to explore the feasibility of an international treaty designed to protect high seas biodiversity and report back by the end of 2017.

Environmentalists applauded the outcome of last week's meeting: "We are pleased that the U.N. Preparatory Committee has completed its mandate and agreed by consensus to recommendations that will move this issue to the next phase of high seas conservation," Liz Karan, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' campaign to protect ocean life on the high seas, said in a statement.

While the Preparatory Committee's report includes substantive recommendations on elements to be included in any eventual high seas agreement, there are some crucial issues that still must be hammered out through international treaty negotiations, such as determining exactly how marine protected areas (MPAs) and marine reserves could be created and managed on the high seas.

A patchwork of governance and management mechanisms regulate human activities like fishing, seabed mining, and shipping on the high seas, but there is little coordination between them, which has left marine ecosystems in the open ocean highly vulnerable. While protected areas cover 13.2 percent of marine environments in countries' territorial waters, just 0.25 percent of marine environments beyond national jurisdiction are afforded some kind of protected status, according to the U.N.

There would seem to be momentum building toward a treaty to address the lack of protections for marine environments in the open ocean. In addition to the recommendation made by the U.N. Preparatory Committee, world leaders meeting at the first-ever U.N. Ocean Conference in New York City last month issued a call for action to "affirm our strong commitment to conserve and sustainably use our oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development."

The purpose of the U.N. Ocean Conference was for governmental representatives to come together and strategize around the implementation of the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goal 14, which aims to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources." Delegates to the conference specifically mentioned MPAs in their call to action as management tools that can "enhance ocean resilience and better conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity."

The affects of climate change on both the open ocean and coastal areas is of particular concern. But, according to Pew's Karan, even the countries that affirmed their support of Sustainable Development Goal 14 are unlikely to be able to meet their sustainability goals without an overarching governance framework for the high seas.

"The ocean doesn't respect political boundaries," Karan says. "What's happening within countries' national waters affects what happens on the high seas and will be affected by what happens on the high seas. Making sure that there's proper governance on the high seas will allow for the establishment of marine protected areas, and ensure that robust environmental impact assessments are being conducted for any activities on the high seas. That will ultimately help benefit countries' national waters and enable them to meet the sustainable development goals."

Research has shown that MPAs and reserves could play a crucial role in ocean conservation efforts in an era of rising global temperatures. An international team of researchers published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences earlier this year, for instance, that concluded that "well-managed marine reserves may help marine ecosystems and people adapt to five prominent impacts of climate change: acidification, sea-level rise, intensification of storms, shifts in species distribution, and decreased productivity and oxygen availability, as well as their cumulative effects."

The authors of the PNAS study add that "marine reserves are a viable low-tech, cost-effective adaptation strategy that would yield multiple co-benefits from local to global scales, improving the outlook for the environment and people into the future."

It's important to note that, while the Preparatory Committee recommended that high seas treaty negotiations be convened, the responsibility for actually launching an intergovernmental conference to hold those negotiations ultimately lies with the U.N. General Assembly.

Karan called for the General Assembly to move the process along quickly: "After two years of meetings, the General Assembly must now decide to launch formal diplomatic negotiations as soon as possible so that countries can work toward finalizing a treaty that would protect the high seas starting in 2018."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.