Earlier this month, after nearly two decades of negotiation, United Nations Member States agreed on a text for an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, the “high seas”.
The agreement covers a range of issues, including marine genetic resources, environmental impact assessments, area-based management tools, and capacity building and technology transfer. It is designed to promote cooperation and coordination among states and stakeholders to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the areas that do not fall under any one governments’ territory or aquatory, providing an important provision for protecting the world’s ocean and ensuring its sustainable use for future generations.
The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO) has actively participated in the work of the Preparatory Committee established in 2015 by the UN General Assembly to consider recommendations for the creation of a high seas legally-binding instrument. IOC/UNESCO has not missed a single session of the intergovernmental conference, which was established in 2017 by the UN General Assembly to agree on the text for this landmark agreement, with its delegations informing negotiators about the status of ocean research as well as the Commission’s mandate and potential role that it could play in facilitating international research, coordinating ocean observations, sharing relevant ocean data and information, and building of technical capacity through the transfer of marine technology.
The IOC/UNESCO possesses recognised technical expertise in multiple areas of direct relevance to the new Agreement, including coordination of international ocean science processes, making observations, collecting, processing, and exchange of ocean data and information relevant to stakeholders (governments, scientific experts, etc.), assessment of national and regional capacities in ocean science (for example, through the Global Ocean Science Report), to the collection of information on capacity development opportunities provided by Member States, and the design/implementation of the tailored capacity development initiatives and regional collaborative approaches in ocean science.
Implementation of the Agreement foresees the set up of a clearing-house mechanism as a central “engine” of the Treaty. Among its many functions are dissemination of information on marine genetic resources, management tools, impact assessments and facilitation of requests for capacity building and the transfer of marine technology. Recognized by the UNCLOS as the competent UN body in the fields of Marine Scientific Research (Part XIII) and Transfer of Marine Technology (Part XIV), IOC/UNESCO is well placed to support the set up and management of the new clearing-house mechanism.
“We welcome the direct reference in the final agreement to the possible cooperation with IOC/UNESCO in the implementation of the clearing-house mechanism to be created under the auspices of the new treaty, deploying our tried, tested, and fully operational platforms and programmes in capacity development and transfer of marine technology for the benefit of all countries,” said Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the IOC/UNESCO.
The Commission is already responsible for documenting the practice of Member States in Marine Scientific Research as well as for the implementation of the IOC Criteria and Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology (CGTMT), adopted in 2005. IOC promotes capacity building in ocean and coastal related matters and seeks to inspire national actions, legislation, projects, and programmes in ocean science and management.
Among other activities of highest relevance to the Treaty are the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS), the Ocean Capacity-development Hub (Ocean CD-HUB), the Ocean Information Hub (OIH), and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). These fully-operational activities are well aligned with the goals of the new agreement and ready to support its swift implementation.
Ocean Biodiversity Information System
The Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS) is the largest marine biodiversity database in the world. Species occurrence data is shared according to FAIR principles (findability, accessibility, interoperability, and reusability) with full open access to metadata. The standardised, machine-readable data stored in OBIS can be easily comparable across different studies.
OBIS also collects genetic data, maintaining a stable and searchable data record for marine genetic resources, which multiplies the benefits from individual genetic studies. Currently OBIS holds over 16,000,000 species records derived from genetic data, and is integrating capabilities to search data records through a sequence-based search, allowing the use of unknown sequences in comparative studies across the globe.
Ocean Information Hub
Supported by the Government of Flanders, Kingdom of Belgium, and implemented by IOC/UNESCO, the Ocean InfoHub Project (OIH) aims to improve access to global ocean information, data and knowledge products for sustainable development. The ultimate goal is to develop the Ocean Data and Information System (ODIS), a digital ecosystem where users, from any entry point, can discover content and services that they require for their ocean work, or post content themselves.
The OIH is a first but major step towards creating ODIS. It is designed to answer requests for data products and services delivered by international (global) as well as regional repositories from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Pacific Small Island Developing States, meeting the requirements of their user communities (e.g. themes and languages).
Ocean Capacity-Development Hub
Launched in early February 2023, IOC/UNESCO’s Ocean Capacity-development Hub (Ocean CD-Hub) is a web-based tool for developing country professionals to discover capacity development opportunities around the world in ocean science and management.
Accessing the Ocean CD-Hub platform, individuals can easily search for information on available capacity development opportunities. Some of those valuable resources (trainings, fellowships, internships, grants, etc.) offered by national, regional and global organisations from all over the world had been poorly known, invisible or not accessible, hence severely underused. The Ocean CD-HUB platform is a revolutionary entry to the world of ocean CD solutions.
Responding to a key need of the new agreement’s clearing-house mechanism, “to facilitate the matching of capacity-building needs […] including governmental, non-governmental or private entities”, the Ocean CD-Hub serves to identify synergies and potential partnerships between organisations providing capacity development opportunities to avoid duplication of efforts and mutualize resources.
The Global Ocean Observing System
The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), together with its partners, such as OBIS, the Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON), and many scientific communities around the globe are working to strengthen the collection of key observations that will be vital for ongoing implementation and success of the new treaty.
New discoveries and mapping of marine life resources can be facilitated through collective and sustained observing efforts, with the coordination provided via GOOS, ensuring that marine life observations are available to all and therefore can be delivered into the treaty framework and fulfil nations’ needs.
Through its framework of 12 Essential Ocean Variables (EOVs) for biodiversity, which measure marine life from microbes and phytoplankton to mangroves and marine mammals, as well as cross cutting EOVs focused on ocean stressors, such as marine debris and ocean sound, GOOS serves as the best source of systematic observations needed to support key elements of the treaty.
The Ocean Decade 2021-2030
The global agreement on a legally-binding treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the high seas comes when the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030 (‘The Ocean Decade’) is in its third year of work on a step-change in the generation and use of ocean knowledge for the co-design and co-implementation of transformative sustainable development ocean solutions.
The Ocean Decade has the potential to improve the scientific basis for the sustainable governance of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction by
- accelerating knowledge generation about under-studied ocean ecosystems and processes;
- helping develop a comprehensive map of the seafloor and a digital twin of the entire ocean;
- expanding deep sea observations infrastructure;
- enhancing understanding of environmental and human connectivity;
- improving knowledge, applications and services related to marine genetic resources; and
- improving meteorological and oceanographic forecasts and predictive capacities.
The Agreement will directly reinforce global action to meet many of the ten UN Ocean Decade Challenges, including through the provision of legal frameworks for sustainable fisheries, and for the collection of non-fisheries related marine organisms and use of genetic information in areas beyond national jurisdiction to ensure more equitable access to marine resources across the world.