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The fourth and final intergovernmental conference on an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ Instrument) was set to take place from the 23rd of March to the 3rd of April. Unfortunately, the session was postponed indefinitely due to the rapid spread of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). While this certainly did not come as much of a surprise to delegates and other stakeholders involved considering that the rate of infection (and death) is dramatically rising, it is nevertheless a harsh pill to swallow. With the postponement of this historical – and also crucial – final intergovernmental conference to conclude an agreement that has been almost 20 years in the making and that would protect and conserve marine biodiversity in areas that fall beyond any national jurisdiction (i.e. 2/3 of the world’s oceans), non-governmental organisations (and government representatives) must work even harder to keep up the momentum, attention and priority and to ultimately have a robust treaty finalised.

Now, the easy way forward would be to accept the circumstances as they are, that is, waiting for things to return to normal as the world manages to contain the disease and to then reignite efforts as a new date is set for the fourth intergovernmental conference. But that is exactly not what we plan on doing. The completion of a legally binding instrument for areas beyond national jurisdiction was never going to be easy; how could it, considering that the United Nations is trying to convince almost 200 countries – many of which foster diverging political and legal systems and who at times have competing national interests – to agree on conservation measures for the High Seas? More than ever, it is important for stakeholders to stick around, to not lose passion and to stay just as determined. The BBNJ-Team at OceanCare, as surely members of other organisations will also do, will remain passionately engaged in convincing UN member states of the most important opportunity to protect the ocean in a generation.

In particular, OceanCare, who has been involved since the very beginning, will underscore how ocean noise pollution undermines ecosystem services and biodiversity. The level of human-made noise in the ocean can inflict irreversible damage to marine wildlife, leading to deafness, habitat displacement, reduced reproduction and feeding opportunities, and in some cases even death. It will thus remain critical for OceanCare to continue to convince governments to consider the risk to BBNJ posed by loud and pervasive ocean noise generated, for example, by so-called air guns. This source of energy is used in the course of seismic surveys during oil and gas exploration and emits sound pulses of up to 260 decibels every 10 to 15 seconds for weeks or even months at a time. This is problematic because as a study conducted by Australian scientists in 2017 demonstrates, there is now evidence that even a single seismic air gun had killed all krill larvae and also a large part of the adult zooplankton within a range of up to 1.2 kilometres in the entire study area (See McCauley et al. 2017). It is hence a threat to all wildlife from the tiniest plankton to the largest whale.

More generally, we will remind governments of the interrelationship between noise and climate change. Indeed, as efforts progress towards protecting the High Seas, governments ought to understand that if commercial ships – another significant source of ocean noise – reduce speed, they would at the same time reduce CO2 emissions by needing less fuel, and noise generation. In more simple terms: reduce speed, reduce noise, reduce emissions and consequently contribute to reducing global warming.

In this context, it is also important to consider the commitment made by member states in 2015 in Paris. In part, countries agreed to take steps towards achieving low greenhouse gas emissions by ending public subsidies for high carbon energy. It is hence crucial for countries to phase out seismic activities for exploring new oil and gas resources not only because this would protect marine wildlife in areas beyond national jurisdiction but also because it would bring countries in alignment with their commitment to the Paris Agreement. If nothing else, the phasing-out of oil and gas exploration activities would support the reduction of CO2 emissions and therefore contribute to climate change mitigation.

As you can see, we have our work cut out for us. And while we cannot physically attend meetings or conferences, what we can do is engage in dialogue with government representatives electronically (see our recommendations on the President’s Draft below). While this is indeed not an optimal development because of the delay and the fact that nothing can replace face-to-face interactions with delegates, the alternative would be to stop and wait until further notice.

It is also important to consider that the ocean is not only affected by climate change but that a healthy ocean itself is essential for stabilising the climate due to its ability of absorbing CO2 and its role as the world’s primary oxygen producer. Therefore, protecting the ocean is implicit in preventing climate breakdown. We must use the resources (pen and paper, telephones or electronic communication) we have to not lose sight of the ultimate goal: a legally binding instrument to protect the High Seas. The Coronavirus disease might be an obstacle in finalising an agreement but it should not be an excuse for inaction in the interim. 

OceanCare recommendations on the President’s Draft

Johannes Müller

Johannes Müller

Ocean Policy Consultant at OceanCare, has attended the BBNJ negotiations since September 2018