Issues In Protecting Biodiversity In The High Seas – Analysis
The March 4 UN agreement on this will help island States like Sri Lanka immensely
Being an island-State, Sri Lanka has whole-heartedly welcomed the historic March 4 UN agreement to protect Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. Also known as the BBNJ, it is expected to enhance the international legal regime for the conservation of marine biological diversity in the “high seas”.
The agreement provides a framework for establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and the sharing of marine genetic resources of the high seas.
Given the interaction between marine life in the high seas and marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction and economies, the implementation of the agreement will contribute to a sustainable use of marine biodiversity areas beyond Sri Lanka’s national jurisdiction while also mitigating adverse impacts on the ocean through sea level rise, ocean pollution, and over exploitation of and marine resources.
According to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, Sri Lanka has demonstrated its commitment to ocean governance by fostering regional dialogue on pertinent issues within the region.
Sri Lanka is the Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security till 2027, IORA Vice Chair for 2021-2023 and will take over as the IORA Chair this year.
At the UNFCCC COP26 in 2021, Sri Lanka had committed to declaring a minimum 30% of its marine reserves as protected areas.
Sri Lanka has particularly welcomed a commitment by developed countries to fund capacity-building projects which will assist developing countries to undertake conservation measures and participate in international efforts more meaningfully.
Millions of people live at, or in close proximity to, the world’s coastlines. Many depend on the narrow strip of coastal waters for their food and livelihoods. But coastal waters represent only 5% of the world’s oceans. The remaining 95% of the oceans is also very relevant for the lives of people. But this is not recognized. Vast resources lying in the deep sea are being ignored and remain unexploited and unpreserved.
According to a UN Environment Program (UNEP)-HERMES document entitled: “Deep-sea biodiversity and ecosystems” the existing knowledge of the high seas or the deep waters is very limited. “Only a tiny amount (0.0001 per cent) of the deep seafloor has so far been subjected to biological investigation,” the report says.
Current estimates are that between 500 000 and 100 million species exist in the deep sea. Indeed, deep waters have the highest biodiversity on Earth.
Deep waters are defined in this report as waters and sea-floor areas below 200 meters, where sunlight penetration is too low to support photosynthetic production. Communities that thrive on minerals and chemicals, rather than energy from the sun and organic matter, live here.
Human activities and impacts on the deep sea
As in the case of the not-so-deep seas, deep seas are also subjected to pollution and climate change. Commercial operations such as fishing, mining, and oil and gas exploration are increasingly taking place in deeper and deeper waters with technological and scientific advancement. Remotely operated vehicles, acoustic mapping, ocean observatories and remote sensing are among present-day tools being used in deep waters research. The exploitation of the deep waters and deep sea beds is economically viable.
But with technological progress there has been overexploitation on an “industrial scale”, decimating deep sea fish stocks, maybe even beyond the point of recovery, the report notes. Bottom trawling destroys large portions of the deep seafloor in one go. Deep-sea fishing, dominated by bottom trawling, provided 80% of the deep-sea catch in 2001.
Bottom trawling now takes place at depths between 250 to 1,500 meters, depending on the targeted species, the report says.
It is important to note that most deep-sea organisms, fishes and ecosystems exhibit slow growth, late maturity and slow reproduction. Orange roughy, for example, live up to 200 years or more, and only start to reproduce at around 20 years of age. This has considerable implications for conservation, protection and sustainable management and use of deep-sea fish stocks, the report points out.
Bycatch from trawlers is a significant problem in both shallow and deep waters. In the southern North Sea for instance, for every kilogram of market fish, an average of 4–5 kilograms of invertebrates and 2 kilograms of fish are thrown out by beam trawlers.
Bottom trawling is expensive due to the need for big vessels and fossil fuels. Therefore, it depends on government subsidies. If governments want to discipline the rogue elements in bottom trawling all it has to do is to remove or reduce the subsidies.
Offshore oil and gas operations
Most submarine oil and gas reserves occur on the continental shelves and slopes (sometimes at considerable depth). But the depletion of shallow-water offshore hydrocarbon reserves, rising oil prices, and the development of new drilling and sub-sea technologies have made exploration and exploitation of oil and gas reserves in deep (500–1 500 metres) and ultra-deep (deeper than 1 500 metres) waters commercially viable, the report says.
But hydrocarbon extraction could eventually trigger seafloor and sub-seafloor destabilization, the report warns. The impact of hurricanes is another important aspect to take into account.
The potential environmental impact of deep-sea mining needs to be further investigated, including the recovery of deep-sea ecosystems after mining has taken place. Very little is known about the community structure of deep-sea organisms and, by the same token, their resilience to large disturbances due to mining. Impacts of mining on biodiversity are likely to be significant as the various species might not be able to recolonize easily once mining operations cease, the report points out.
Pollution from ships tends to be less controlled in the deep sea. “Further out at sea, tanks are often cleaned, and oil and chemical residues deliberately discharged overboard. Such operations represent the largest sources of pollution from ships. Moreover, the regulation of effluents from ships remains difficult to enforce, especially if discharges take place in remote offshore areas or international waters,” the report says.
Spurred by a boom in tourism at sea, cruise ships are increasingly threatening vulnerable areas with their wastes. Vessel-generated refuse remains a major source of marine litter, even after the entry into force of regulations that prohibit disposal of all litter except food.
Marine debris comprises fishing gear, either lost or dumped. In addition, a rough estimate of lost merchant freight at sea is 1.3 million tonnes per year. Over seven million tonnes of British merchant vessels were sunk during the First World War and more than 21 million tonnes of allied merchant cargo during the Second.
Another type of pollution impacting on the deep sea is acoustic pollution. Maritime transportation around the globe is increasing and so is the number of boats and vessels at sea. The acoustic impact of the low frequency sounds produced by vessels is not confined to coastal waters, but penetrates into the deep portions of the oceans. It is not yet clear what impact this type of pollution can have on cetaceans (such as sperm whales, for example) that spend a large part of their life in the deep sea and use sound to communicate, navigate, feed and sense their environment. Ship strikes can significantly affect small populations of whales.
The nuclear and military industries are sources of some of the most dangerous wastes intentionally dumped at sea. Because of the difficulty to access data from both civil and military sources, the quantities of radioactive wastes dumped in ocean trenches off the British Isles by the United Kingdom and other European nations, or of submarines reactors dumped by the Soviet Union, can barely be estimated. Nuclear (re)processing plants continue to discharge low levels of radioactive waters into the sea, the UNEP report says.