Ocean Health, Biodiversity, and the BBNJ Agreement

February 20, 2023 3 minute read

This week (February 20-March 3, 2023) negotiations for the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Agreement are resuming at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York.

The Fifth Session of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC5), which convened in New York this past summer, was expected to be the final negotiating session towards a High Seas Treaty. However, there were several differences remaining on key issues across parties. As negotiations continue where they left off, there is additional push for not only progress on deliberations, but hopeful agreement given the momentous landmark 30x30 pledge to protect biodiversity signed only months ago as part of COP15 in Montreal. 

What is the BBNJ Agreement?

The “High Seas Biodiversity Treaty”, also known as the “BBNJ Agreement,” is an international agreement currently under negotiation at the UN focused on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction. It is anticipated that this agreement will provide more holistic and equitable management of human activities impacting ocean life beyond national boundaries in an effort to safeguard global ocean health and contribute to climate resilience and increased food security and economic well-being for millions of people. 

The Importance of the High Seas

The ‘High Seas’ refers to marine areas outside the 200-nautical mile limit of the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of coastal seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). These areas represent nearly two-thirds of the world’s ocean, including not only deep seabeds, but also the high seas water column and airspace above. 

There are several ecosystem benefits contained and realized in the High Seas – from significant photosynthetic activity of plankton (oxygen machines) -- to the mitigation of climate change effects through the absorption of carbon and storage/distribution of solar radiation (carbon sequestration and heat distribution) around the globe. 

As part of a growing Blue Economy, the High Seas is important to not only transportation and energy sectors, but also to seafood production, raw material extraction, and the benefits of marine genetic material.  With connectivity to coastal waters, the High Seas supports not only the global and national economies, but also contributes to coastal and shoreline community growth and sustainability as well.

Given the fact ABNJ areas are beyond the limits of individual States’ continental shelves, no one nation has sole responsibility for management and conservation for these areas. This is of vital concern given the fact the high seas host a significant portion of our planet’s biodiversity and fragile ecosystems, and why a cooperative agreement such as the BBNJ is an imperative to halting the current trajectory of biodiversity loss and declining ocean health. 

The Importance of the BBNJ

In her September 2022 editorial for Science, High Seas Treaty Within Reach, Kristina M. Gjerdeis, senior high seas adviser of the Ocean Team at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said this of the current BBNJ deliberations: 

“These little-known negotiations should compel a sense of urgency because at risk are vital ecosystem services that keep Earth’s climate livable. Existing regional and global organizations for managing fishing, shipping, or deep-sea mining lack a global focus on marine biodiversity that the new treaty could provide.”

She also noted that in additional to the prior acceptance of key principles and approaches to advancing ecosystem-based management, agreement of key institutions such as meeting regularity and process, as well as recognizing roles for both science as well as traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local communities, there are still some “daunting divides” that negotiators are facing this week.

This includes, according to Gjerdeis: 

  • Finding an acceptable balance between state autonomy and collective action to “effectively manage marine protected areas, review environmental impact assessments, and hold each other accountable for harm,
  • Determining how to more equitably share benefits derived from marine genetic resources given the value and potential applications in industry, agriculture, and biomedicine as well as their role in informing assessments, research and monitoring of the ocean, and
  • Establishing a process ground in equity in which wealthier nations demonstrate a commitment to “delivering the capacity-building, technology, and funds necessary to assist developing nations, such as small island states, to fully participate in the treaty.”

Resonance will Monitor the BBNJ and its Imperatives

For changemakers, catalyst organizations, NGOs, and organizations involved in private sector engagement and cross-sector partnerships, the BBNJ will likely have a profound impact on in not only the High Seas, but also in coastal water activities as well related to reduction of plastics, microplastics, and coastal pollution, climate mitigation and resiliency, resource mapping, biodiversity protection goals, metrics, and monitoring, and sustainable fisheries, among others.

As an implementing firm engaged in many of these undertakings around the globe, Resonance will be reporting on the treaty as finalized, as well as its widespread implications.  

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If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.