Time for everyone to sign up for strong ocean governance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

2017 has the potential to be a historic year for ocean governance. [Shutterstock]

There is currently no legal mechanism for creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the high seas. A proposed agreement by the UN looks to rectify that, writes Sophie Mirgaux.

Sophie Mirgaux is senior international negotiator in the department for the marine environment at Belgium’s Ministry of Environment.

In our era of fast-paced news and political intrigue it can be easy to overlook the bigger picture, the things that really matter for our planet and our future. And there is no bigger picture than the ocean and the high seas in particular, that belongs to no one and everyone. These vast waters cover half the Earth, sustain us all, and yet we neglect and exploit them.

As many countries turn inward, it is more important than ever to tackle critical challenges that are beyond the reach of any single state and which compel us to work together.

Belgium is an ardent proponent of regional and global collaboration and firmly committed to strengthening multilateral cooperation to preserve and restore the health of our ocean. This year promises many opportunities to pursue this goal.

Earlier this month, delegations gathered at the UN for the penultimate, preparatory meeting for the negotiation of a new, legally binding international agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (known as BBNJ).

It is hard to overstate the necessity for this agreement. There is currently no legal mechanism for creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the high seas. The new treaty promises to bring the rule of law to the half of the planet that currently operates as a watery Wild West, where anyone can contaminate, pollute and destroy previous ecosystems without any monitoring or accountability.

In 2017, we have a golden opportunity to close the damaging high seas governance gap by laying the foundations for this new treaty. The recent meeting embodied the progress made so far and the chair of the preparatory meeting will prepare draft recommendations for consideration by delegation in July, at the fourth and final PrepCom.

We called on all states to pursue a bold ambition in this regard with a view to opening an Intergovernmental Conference in 2018.

Belgium has five borders: four with neighbouring countries and a fifth with the North Sea, which links us to the global ocean and the rest of the world. In March, it was our pleasure to welcome delegates from around the world for discussions to support this vital international process.

In particular, we highlighted the aspirations and concerns of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These small island, big ocean nations are being hit first and hardest by the impacts of climate change and the deteriorating health of the ocean – two sides of the same, human-induced crisis.

Like beautiful canaries in the planetary coalmine, the world’s island states have been calling on us to act on threats from sea-level rise and ocean acidification to coral reef bleaching and overfishing. Last week at the UN we listened to them and aimed to ensure that their unique challenges are taken fully into consideration as we come together to build 21st century governance mechanisms for the high seas and marine biodiversity.

Belgium is committed to action for the ocean on multiple fronts. The March workshop and the wider BBNJ process are part of a chain of events that is making 2017 a seminal year for ocean conservation.

At the first ever UN Ocean Conference in June, delegates will launch a Call to Action for delivering targets under Sustainable Development Goal 14, the Ocean Goal. Without the new treaty, it will be impossible to reach these targets.

In October, the EU will host the fourth Our Ocean conference in Malta, where states and the business community announce new ocean strategies and innovations. Each of these occasions is an opportunity for building global and regional cooperation to overcome multiple threats confronting the ocean, and for pushing it higher up national and global agendas.

We are proud to join our fellow proactive nations in leading the way towards stronger high seas governance. Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders reaffirmed Belgium’s formal commitment to prioritising the ocean as a key element in Belgium’s international agenda

Throughout 2017, Belgium will be advocating for a strong BBNJ treaty that contains a mechanism for establishing MPAs, including marine reserves in the high seas, as recommended by top marine scientists.

This is necessary for fulfilling international commitments to protect at least 10% of the ocean by 2020. Our dedication to the goals of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is also materialised in our Marine Spatial Plan.

Belgium was one of the first countries to adopt such a plan. The current plan designates one third of the Belgian part of the North Sea as nature conservation area.

This year has the potential to be a historic turning point for ocean governance. We must all seize the opportunity to agree a strong high seas treaty and work together against the forces undermining ocean health.


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