Groups Urge New Treaties to Protect Imperilled Seas

By Cat Lazaroff

GLAND, Switzerland, May 10, 2001 (ENS) - Urgent measures are needed to protect the vast hidden treasures of the deep seas from over exploitation, according to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union. International agreements must be put in place to regulate the management, protection and exploitation of high seas beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of the exclusive economic zones of coastal states, the groups warn.

The report, "The Status of Natural Resources on the High Seas," says that the deep sea and its inhabitants are threatened by unregulated fishing and oil exploration, carbon dioxide dumping, biotechnology, and the exploitation of gas hydrates and hydrothermal vent heat.


WWF researcher monitoring marine life in the Sulu Sea, Philippines (Photo © WWF-Canon/Jürgen Freund)
Particularly threatened are deep sea corals in the Atlantic, which have been damaged by industrialized fishing trawlers which drag heavy chains over reefs. The orange roughy fish in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, whales, dolphins and porpoises are among the species the report finds to be at high risk.

"Increasing levels of fishing and oil exploration are harming the fragile biodiversity of the deep seas," said Dr. Simon Cripps, head of the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) marine program. "Being open to unregulated access has made the high seas increasingly susceptible to over exploitation. The enhanced capacity and reach of fishing fleets, and advanced technologies that can enable oil drilling to take place up to depths of at least 2,000 meters, put the sensitive marine life of the high seas at great risk."

About half of the Earth's surface is covered by seas that are outside national jurisdiction - open ocean and deep sea environments lying beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zones of coastal states. These high seas areas are common resources for all the world's people, and as such may be particularly susceptible to over exploitation.

Within them exists marine life that is rich in diversity as well as scientific and geologically significant deep sea coral reefs, seamounts, deep sea trenches and fish stocks.


Whales, like this humpback whale, are among the marine species most at risk from over exploitation of the high seas, the report says (Photo © WWF-Canon/Sylvia Earle)
Until recently, there was little perceived threat to these open access areas. But in recent years, rapid expansion in oil production and deep sea fishing has begun to affect the seas down to depths of at least 2,000 meters (about a mile and a quarter).

These activities pose a potential threat to the deep sea environment, as do several proposed and developing technologies, including biotechnology, the exploitation of gas hydrates and hydrothermal vent heat energy, and research into sequestering carbon dioxide in the oceans.

The report, written by specialists from the Southampton Oceanography Center in the United Kingdom and Dr. Charlotte de Fontaubert, calls on states to assess the magnitude of these resources, the threats to them, their potential for sustainable use and action to protect biodiversity.

The World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Amman World Conservation Congress in October 2000 urged governments, international agencies and non-governmental organizations to review existing legal agreements and to identify areas of the high seas suitable for collaborative management, and to agree on ways to manage and conserve them.


Most current marine protected areas are in coastal waters, like the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize (Photo © WWF-Canon/Anthony B. Rath)
Part of the solution, says the report, could be the designation of different types of High Seas Marine Protected Areas (HSMPAs) to address the uncertainty of exploitation of their living resources. Some elements of international agreements already require states to cooperate in managing resources of the high seas.

What governments and international conservation organizations need to do is go a step further and take urgent action to overcome political, legal and institutional obstacles to practical implementation of activities to protect the high seas, the report argues.

The WWF and IUCN are working to help nations establish a network of marine protected areas in sensitive and biologically diverse areas.

"Experience from managing MPAs around the world indicates that political will, legal security and stakeholder support is necessary to establish, manage and enforce the protected area status," the report notes. "It is expected that there will not be a single solution suitable for all potential protected areas. In formulating transparent mechanisms for protection, the rights of legitimate users of the high seas must be respected, so that the protected status has a chance of being respected."

fish & corals

Fragile corals can be damaged by deep sea fishing and oil exploration (Photo courtesy U.S. Coral Reef Task Force)
The groups hope their new report, compiled by leading marine specialists, will contribute to a better understanding of the natural resources of the high seas outside the jurisdiction of coastal states, and help to identify the potential threats to those resources. The report also aims to help guide the protection of these resources under existing or new international treaties.

"Technology is advancing at such a pace that by the time that we know the value of a resource, it may be gone," said John Waugh, senior multilateral relations officer at IUCN. "We have to plan now for the conservation and sustainable, equitable uses of marine resources in areas outside national jurisdiction."

The full report is available at: