UN poised to protect 120 marine ‘hotspots’

By Tierney Smith
RTCC in Hyderabad

Over 120 ecologically and biologically significant areas (EBSAs) in the world’s oceans could gain the protection of the UN later this week.

These biodiversity ‘hotspots’ are located in the Western South Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Western Mid-Atlantic, and have been certified using criteria laid out by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2010.

RTCC understands there is widespread support from parties at the talks for a text that would provide enhanced conservation and management measures to EBSAs. If this gets the green light, a motion will be passed to the UN General Assembly.

EBSAs are evaluated on the rarity of the area in question, its importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and its naturalness.

Experts from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are calling for a legal agreement to conserve these areas. Patricio Bernal, IUCN Coordinator for the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative said degradation of the High Seas has to be taken seriously.

“We now know that 41-42% of the world’s oceans have been affected by heavy human impact and degradation,” he said. “We have the term above ground; land degradation. Ocean degradation is pretty much invisible and we have to bring it to light. This new process allows us to do that.”

Around 80% of the world’s biodiversity is said to live in the oceans – from the smallest to some of the largest species in the world.

Oceans are also vitally important for humans. They provide us with food, water, oxygen and help regulate the climate. But these vital serives are under increasing threat.

Unsustainable human use, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification all make life for the seas’ residents increasingly difficult.

The IUCN says greater protection of the oceans biodiversity ‘hotspots’ could help ensure the survival of some of the species on the Red List for Critically Endangered Species

Ocean acidification – a direct consequence of climate change – breaks down the shells and skeletons that form the basis for the ocean’s coral reef systems, as well as phytoplankton. These tiny organisms make up the majority of marine food webs and could causes problems much higher up the chain.

It is expected that the oceans could become 150% more acidic by 2100.

While the oceans cover around 70% of the world’s surface, only 2% of them are protected. Half of this is in international waters.

“What IUCN and the others involved in this project are calling for is a legal framework to address biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction,” said Kristina Gjerde, Senior High Seas Advisor, IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme. “This would help to establish marine protected areas and it would help ensure the sustainable use of marine resources.”

She warned that there was a major gap in environmental law beyond the areas of the oceans covered by national jurisdiction. While the CBD says countries should cooperate to protect these areas, how that could be achieved is still unknown.

“We are seeing increasing degradation of our oceans…[they] have degraded more in the past 30 years than they had in the whole of human history,” she said.

Under the  Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI) scientists have used new data to locate some of the oceans’ most valuable areas. It is the first time the oceans – particular international waters outside any country’s jurisdiction – have been examined in this depth.

In the Sargasso Sea, for example, scientists found the floating Sargassum seaweeds provide shelter to many species such as the Sargassum angerfish that is unique to the area. Thirty species were also found to migrate through the sea including tuna, turtles, sharks, rays, whales and dolphins.

Bernal says the criteria are flexible enough to allow for both biodiversity – one single species – and ecology – a complex ecosystem of different species – to be assessed. ‘Hotspots’ can be based on either one or several of the criteria.

“The flexibility of the methodology allows us to be flexible and to use it in a complex way – we can use it to assess anything from a single species to whole ecosystems,” he said.

RTCC Video: Kristina M. Gjerde, Senior High Seas Advisor at the IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, outlines the biodiversity and conservation challenges faced on the High Seas.

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