Governance issues

Global Governance Framework for the High Seas

The international legal regime for the high seas is made up of a number of global and regional legal instruments. It includes the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an umbrella convention covering all ocean uses; and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which places obligations on nations to conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

With regards to fisheries, the only global framework calling for sustainable management of high seas fisheries, based on the precautionary and ecosystem approaches, is the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA). However, the Agreement applies only to highly migratory and transboundary fish stocks and does not cover sedentary high or deep-sea fish populations.

There are some binding legal agreements at the regional level, such as those establishing Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). They do not, however, cover all high seas fisheries with respect to species or ocean areas.

Globally, the conservation and sustainable management of high seas biodiversity
has gained momentum in recent years, and has become a priority at international
fora and for specific institutions such as the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the CBD, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Since 2002, when the UNGA called on states to urgently consider ways of minimising
risks to seamounts and other underwater features, a number of milestone
events and resolutions have been achieved. They have all urged states to take measures for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. In 2006, the UNGA adopted a resolution on sustainable fisheries (UNGA res. 61/105) which included a call for urgent action to protect deep-sea corals and other vulnerable ecosystems from the impacts of bottom fishing on the high seas.

In specific, paragraph 80 of UNGA res. 61/105:
“ Calls upon States to take action immediately, individually and through regional
fisheries management organizations and arrangements, and consistent with the precautionary approach and ecosystem approaches, to sustainably manage fish stocks and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, including seamounts, hydrothermal vents and cold water corals, from destructive fishing practices, recognizing the immense importance and value of deep sea ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain”.

Paragraphs 83-85 of res. 61/105 detail the steps that States and RFMOs are to take to ensure the sustainability of deep sea fisheries and to prevent significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems. The FAO Guidelines for the Management of Deep Sea Fisheries on the High Seas elaborate on these elements.

Governance Framework for the High Seas of the Indian Ocean

The only regional agreement currently in force in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), applies specifically to the conservation and management of tuna and tuna-like species. The Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA), focused on deep-sea fisheries in the high seas, is not yet in force, and interim measures
called for by the UNGA resolution 61/105 have not yet been agreed for the Indian Ocean.

The only large-scale conservation initiative for seamounts in the southern Indian
Ocean came from within the industry, the Southern Indian Ocean Deep-Water Fishers Association (SIODFA), which, in 2006, voluntarily set aside 11 Benthic Protected Areas (BPAs).

As there are no multilaterally agreed conservation measures in place, high seas bottom fisheries in the Indian Ocean are not illegal fisheries. They remain however, unregulated and unreported [despite the call in UNGA resolution 61/105 and a complementary resolution calling on nations engaged in high seas fisheries for non highly migratory
species to report the catch, effort and number of vessels fishing] . In 2003, deep-water fishing companies that are members of SIODFA started to report their catches to the Association, however, this information is not publicly available.

While the initiative by SIODFA represents an important step forward, it highlights
the need for accurate and independent baseline data against which to evaluate the effectiveness of the BPAs for biodiversity and fisheries conservation. It also emphasises the need for effective governance and enforcement, within a framework of transparent decision-making and public availability of information.

The combination of the lack of understanding of important oceanic features such as seamounts and their interactions with commercial fish species and the existing gap in the high seas marine biodiversity governance and regulatory system poses major threats to marine species and their habitat. These gaps can allow unregulated and unreported activities, overexploitation of marine resources and destruction of benthic habitats.

Related links
  • Convention on Biological Diversity

    Convention on Biological Diversity

    Photo: CBD

  • Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea

    Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea

    Photo: DOALOS

  • Indian Ocean Tuna Commission

    Indian Ocean Tuna Commission

    Photo: IOTC