Marine News: Complexity, Politics and the High Seas

A report by Sally Campbell

United Nations is trying anew to complete the treaty protecting the high seas. The high seas are areas beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of the exclusive economic zones of coastal states. Home to around 270,000 species, the high seas cover more than two-thirds of the global oceans, according to scientists.

Over 1,550 marine animals and plants face a risk of extinction, with climate change impacting at least 40 per cent of threatened marine species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated (IUCN). Only 1.44 per cent of the high seas are protected.

Then there is the resumed 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. Officially called the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, BBNJ) UN member states are meeting for the fifth time in as many years to try to reach a deal that would protect large sections of the high seas. UN member states on Monday (20 February) opened two weeks of negotiations aimed at finally reaching a treaty meant to protect and preserve vast areas of the world’s oceans.

After more than 15 years of formal and informal talks, this will be the third time in less than a year that negotiators converge on New York in what, yet again, is supposed to be a final and conclusive round.

Fifth Resumed session. I do ask myself WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG? Is it Self-interest, £££, power, or the power of big business lobby groups?
New York, 15–26 August 2022, resumed 20 February–3 March 2023

The final negotiations for a UN Ocean Treaty resumed on Monday 20 February 2023. Without a strong Treaty, it is practically impossible to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, the 30×30 target. This target was agreed at COP15 in Montreal in December 2022. Failure to agree a Treaty will jeopardise the 30×30 target just months after it was agreed. Progress on ocean sanctuaries was made at the last negotiations giving hope that a Treaty is within reach. The two-week meeting resumed after member nations failed to reach a consensus on the treaty at the fifth session in August last year.

At the opening ceremony, IGC President Rena Lee urged delegates to work together to reach the finishing line and to set aside the disappointment of having come “so tantalisingly close” to the agreement at the last session. “With the accelerating climate and biodiversity crises, time is not a luxury we have to put ocean health back on track,” Sarah Bevis from the High Seas Alliance said in a statement. “This time around, we need to seize the moment and get an ambitious treaty over the finish line, so we can roll up our sleeves and work on the crucial tasks of getting the treaty ratified and implemented,” she added.

The public is demanding action as was shown when Jane Fonda, a big supporter of the Oceans and the environment delivered 5.5 million signatures from 157 countries demanding a strong Global Ocean Treaty to the president of the UN negotiations. She pleaded with delegates to come to an agreement.

Jane Fonda at the UN Global Ocean Treaty talks. Credit: Greenpeace

The legally binding treaty, if adopted, will safeguard global ocean health, climate resilience, socio-economic well-being and food security for millions of people.

On the first day of negotiations, member states discussed an important element under the treaty: The benefit sharing of marine genetic resources (MGRs). It includes marine plants, animals and microbes from areas beyond national jurisdiction. The element aims to address the inequalities in sharing benefits from samples, basic and applied research results as well as monetary benefit sharing from MGRs. Disagreements emerged during deliberations. A few countries reportedly suggested removing a reference to benefit-sharing contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

They added that benefit-sharing should go beyond conservation and sustainable use. This was opposed by other nations, according to a report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Some delegates underlined the need for fair, equitable agreement on benefit-sharing that is also implementable. Discussions were also held on capacity building and technology transfer. One nation reportedly suggested including “financial and other” resources as types of capacity building. This, they said, could help developing countries, which require $14 billion to achieve the 30×30 goal adopted at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

Dr Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner and Polar Advisor, Greenpeace Nordic said:
“The oceans support all life on Earth. Their fate will be decided at these negotiations. The science is clear. Protecting 30% of the oceans by 2030 is the absolute minimum necessary to avert catastrophe. It was encouraging to see all governments adopt the 30×30 target last year, but lofty targets mean nothing without action.” “This special session taking place so soon after the last round of negotiations collapsed gives us hope. If a strong Treaty is agreed on the 3rd of March, it keeps 30×30 alive. Governments must return to negotiations ready to find compromises and deliver an effective Treaty. We’re already in extra time. These talks are one final chance to deliver. Governments must not fail.”

More than 50 High Ambition Coalition countries promised a Treaty in 2022 and they failed. Many of the self-proclaimed ocean champions from the Global North refused to compromise on key issues such as financing and monetary benefit sharing from Marine Genetic Resources until the final days of talks. They offered too little, too late. The sticking points which need resolution are on finance, capacity building and the fair sharing of benefits from Marine Genetic Resources. Resolving these impasses depends on the Global North making a fair and credible offer to the Global South.

Establishing a global network of protected areas should be a primary objective of the Treaty. A strong Treaty must be robust enough to facilitate th4e creation of fully protected ocean sanctuaries across the high seas, free from activities like destructive fishing and deep-sea mining. The Conference of the Parties (COP) created by the Treaty must be able to take decisions on all potentially damaging activities, including fishing, inside protected areas without deferring to dysfunctional sectoral bodies that only care about short term interests. The COP must also be able to function through majority vote, not relying on consensus, to avoid single countries stalling or blocking progress. This understanding of complexity is vital for the future. Around the world, small-scale fisheries workers and grassroots ocean protectors are demanding action to protect the oceans – like the community in Cayar, Senegal, who are suing a polluting fishmeal factory with Greenpeace’s support. The threat of deep-sea mining is adding to the many pressures the oceans are facing. A strong Global Ocean Treaty can help turn the tide, prioritising ocean protection over exploitation.

So, what about Complexity and the Oceans ?

Whilst countries negotiate in New York other problems arise. A report from Dakar in Senegal, this month February 2023 – Greenpeace Africa revealed the suspicious presence of a Russian factory trawler in Senegalese waters. This vessel, with an estimated storage capacity of more than 2,000 tonnes, was simply putting further pressure on the increasingly scarce fish stocks in Senegalese waters. The 120m Vasiliy Filippov (IMO: 8607191, MMSI: 273299470) arrived in Senegalese waters on 7 February, and has been operating off the Petite Côte and Casamance since 8 February (see image below). Before flying the Russian flag, the vessel was registered in Poland, Namibia and Belize successively. According to Greenpeace Africa’s investigation, the Vasiliy Filippov is owned by a Namibian intermediary on behalf of an Icelandic company, Samherji, which has recently been accused of corruption in an ongoing case in Namibia.



Activity of the vessel Vasiliy Filippov since 7 February 2023 Source: Marine Traffic 14-02-2023


Photo of the vessel Vasiliy Filippov. Source: Marine Traffic 14-02-2023

Dr Aliou Ba, Greenpeace Africa’s Oceans Campaigner, said: “Senegal’s fisheries are dying. Most fish stocks are overexploited, and more trawlers will worsen the situation. Fishermen can no longer meet their daily needs and households are struggling to find fish for meals, so the arrival of this trawler with its massive destructive capacity is very disturbing. The authorities should invest more in sustainable fisheries management, not allow trawlers to overfish our seas.”

He added: “We call on the Ministry of Fisheries to clarify the suspicious presence of this Russian vessel in Senegalese waters and to specify the measures taken to protect local fishermen from this monster. A vessel that has already been the subject of corruption charges in other countries should not be in our waters.” Greenpeace Africa deplores the ministry’s stubborn refusal to publish the list of industrial vessels authorised to fish in Senegal. Such a list would facilitate real-time monitoring of the waters by those involved in the sector”. “The fisheries sector is of strategic importance to Senegal. All measures should be taken to ensure effective surveillance of Senegal’s coasts so that the sector can continue to play its full role in the food security and socio-economic stability of thousands of Senegalese. As such, it deserves much more attention from the authorities. Its sustainable and transparent management must be at the heart of the public policies of the State of Senegal,” concluded Dr Ba.

Consequences of this unauthorised, even corrupt fishing of the waters of Senegal and other coastal states in NW Africa is that the complexity of communities, both human and marine are intertwined. This in turn results in migration of human beings across the sea to secure food security and survival, and harms marine life, including sea birds dependent on small fish in the oceans. Evidence includes:

1. The rise in migrants to The Canary Islands. A total of 22,316 migrants and refugees crossed by boat to the Canary Islands, part of Spain in 2021, after 23,271 made the crossing in 2020. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated 3,077 migrants and refugees died or went missing while trying to reach Europe by sea in 2021.The Northwest African route refers to the maritime routes connecting several countries and territories along the Northwest African coast (Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia and the Disputed Territories of Western Sahara) with the Canary Islands. Many of them had lived in Algeria and Morocco for some months or years, before deciding to take the Northwest African route to an EU country seeking a better, more secure life.

2. Hundreds of puffins have washed up dead or have been found in poor condition on the shores of the Canary Islands this winter, which has raised serious concerns for Scotland’s population of the birds. Scotland’s puffin population is feared to have been decimated as post mortems on hundreds of birds washed up in Spain have confirmed they died from starvation. Experts are now warning that puffin numbers during this year’s migration onshore in Scotland to breed will have collapsed and even threaten the future survival of the species.

On Lunga near Staffa. Credit: John Campbell

Sea life and people are intertwined. Fish meal is a vital ingredient of aquaculture, including salmon farming in Scotland. So, we impoverish the villagers of coastal Senegal, The Gambia, Western Sahara and waters off Spain by illegal or corrupt large-scale trawling, diminishing or collapsing the fish stocks there and in other oceanic areas in order to have cheap salmon steaks in Tesco and other supermarkets. This in turn results in migration of human beings across the sea to secure food security and survival, and harms marine life, including Scottish puffins and other sea bird migrants, dependent on small fish in the oceans. Once the breeding season is done in Scotland, the puffins leave, heading out where they spend the winter months bobbing about on the rough seas. Some will remain closer to home in the North Sea for the winter, others move further south to the Bay of Biscay, and beyond where they spend the winter months at sea.

It has led to calls by British ornithologists for urgent research to establish what is causing the deaths amid concerns that storms or changes in oceanography linked to climate change and overfishing could be responsible. I would suggest factory ships off the west coast of Africa and other illegal fishing in the Atlantic and other oceans are having a major effect on communities that depend on fish for livelihoods during the year and feed for birds like puffins at sea during the winter and other times of the year.

Where is the UK positioned at this UN meeting? The UK is undermining itself at a UN negotiation to safeguard the world’s oceans because it allows fishing in protected areas off the British coast. Greenpeace, who are observing the talks, said developed countries like the UK need to offer financial contributions for any deal to work. But the UK is lacking credibility because it allows fishing in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in British waters, it added. The Government said 60% of English MPAs are currently protected from damaging fishing and wants to have all MPAs protected by 2024. Megan Randles, Greenpeace UK political adviser, said: “We’ve welcomed the UK Government’s support for a global ocean treaty at these talks so far – and would like to see it go even further in these final crucial two weeks – but the UK’s credibility is undeniably weakened by its lack of action to protect MPAs at home. “With 92% of UK MPAs still vulnerable to the most destructive fishing methods, it’s time the UK acted like a true global leader and banned industrial fishing from all UK MPAs altogether.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK has a strong track record in marine conservation and places great importance on ensuring that appropriate protection and management is in place for sensitive marine species and habitats. “Nearly 60% of our 178 English MPAs are protected from damaging fishing activity, including byelaws this year in the first four offshore sites, which ban bottom-towed gear over sensitive habitats. “A call for evidence took place over the summer on a further 13 offshore MPAs and we aim to have all MPAs protected from damaging fishing activity by 2024.”

And what about the EU? Where does it stand at this Conference ?

Greenpeace Belgium activists project messages calling for ocean protection onto the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. Credit: Greenpeace

Environmental activist group Greenpeace literally exposed the European Union’s “failure” to protect the ocean as it projected messages calling out its lies and false promises on the Commission’s HQ in Brussels on Monday 20 February.

With this action, it called on Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius — who previously said “our future depends” on the oceans — to deliver on their promises to protect the oceans, which so far, have been empty. “The European Union must deliver the ocean protection it has repeatedly promised. Along with the UK and the US, it is largely responsible for the failure to reach a deal at the last round of UN negotiations in August 2022,” Laura Meller of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said.

Greenpeace noted the importance of such a treaty, both globally as less than 1% of the world’s oceans are protected, but also specifically for the EU itself, as its own marine environment is in a “dismal state” with 99% of European waters unprotected from “high impact activities”, like bottom trawling or mining.

But now, the EU has just announced that it will ban bottom-bottom trawling in:
• Marine Protected Areas in Natura 2000 sites that protect the seabed and marine species by March 2024; and
• all other Marine Protected Areas by 2030 and not to allow it in any newly established Marine Protected Areas. [2]

Watch the video:

Finally, the EU Commission listened to citizens, experts and science instead of the big industrial fishing lobby. Pressure on decision-makers with various actions, made positive change possible.

This is only the beginning of healthier oceans. The ban does not cover all of our European oceans and will not stop destruction in all Marine Protected Areas until 2030.

So, we need to keep fighting to ban destructive fishing across all European waters and eliminate unhelpful lobbying. The push for more sustainable and community-driven fishing is essential in Scotland too.

27 February: UPDATE HOT OFF THE PRESS: At the start of week two, and final days of the Conference in New York. A brief live report from Chris Thorne, Greenpeace in NYC:

We have just 5 days left to secure a Treaty. Progress was painfully slow in week one, as countries dithered, delayed and time-wasted, despite a promising start.

On Saturday we got an updated Treaty text which laid bare the large number of outstanding issues to be resolved. Finance remains a key issue. Global North countries like the UK, US and European Union member states must commit to sufficient funding for capacity building and implementing the Treaty. They must also resolve the mechanics of sharing financial benefits from Marine Genetic Resources. And we need China to broker, rather than break, a deal. China led from the front at COP15 in delivering the 30×30 agreement, but here it is falling behind. China, along with the Global North, must show more flexibility, or these talks will fail.

Although the text isn’t in an ideal place, it’s still all to play for and a historic Treaty could well be finalised at the end of this week! But in order to reach a deal, Minsters need to make high level political interventions and prioritise equity over greed and geopolitics. So we’re doing everything we can to get this message to decision makers.

Our delegation inside the UN is working around the clock to strategize, lobby delegates and produce outputs for Greenpeace offices to use to raise the pressure at home. Away from the negotiations, our US colleagues blocked traffic outside of the UN this morning with a gigantic banner demanding an ‘Ocean Treaty Now,’ which followed a rally they held opposite the UN last week. And later this week we’ll be lighting up New York with a series of spectacular protections as part of our final push to get the Treaty over the line. It’s going to be an intense, chaotic and emotional 5 days!

All I can say is “Come on UK Government, pull your thumb out and stop playing power politics. This is not a game, but the reality is to support the Oceans 30X30 Treaty and start the real conservation of our ocean life support function.”

Sally Campbell
February 2023