For the past decade, the issue of protecting biodiversity in the deep sea in areas beyond national jurisdiction - the high seas - has been extensively debated by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and in other international fora. The UNGA adopted a series of resolutions, beginning with UN Resolution 59/25 in 2004, which called on high seas fishing nations and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to take urgent action to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) from destructive fishing practices, including bottom trawl fishing, in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
A report from the UN Secretary General in 2006 on progress on the implementation of the 2004 resolution concluded that little action had been taken to protect deep-sea ecosystems on the high seas from the adverse impacts of bottom fisheries despite the fact that "deep-sea habitats in these areas are extremely vulnerable and require protection."
As a result of a review by the UNGA in 2006, and calls by a number of countries including Brazil, Palau and other Pacific Island countries, the UNGA adopted a 'compromise' offered by nations whose vessels deep-sea fish on the high seas through UNGA Resolution 61/105, adopted by consensus in December 2006. Resolution 61/105 committed nations that authorise their vessels to engage in bottom fisheries on the high seas to take a series of actions, outlined in Paragraph 83 of the resolution. The main action points are summarised as follows.
A set of International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas (FAO Guidelines) were then negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) to, inter alia, further define and agree to criteria for the conduct of impact assessments of high seas bottom fisheries; identify VMEs; and then assess whether deep-sea fisheries would have "significant adverse impacts" on VMEs. The FAO Guidelines were adopted in August 2008.
In 2009, the UNGA determined that Resolution 61/105 had not been implemented sufficiently. As a result the General Assembly adopted additional provisions in Resolution 64/72. This resolution reaffirmed the 2006 resolution and made it clear that the measures called for in Resolution 61/105 should be implemented, consistent with the FAO Guidelines, by flag states and RFMOs prior to allowing, or authorising, bottom fishing on the high seas to proceed. Resolution 64/72 placed particular emphasis on conducting impact assessments of bottom fisheries on the high seas and called on States and RFMOs to "ensure that vessels do not engage in bottom fishing until such assessments have been carried out". Resolution 64/72 further called for stock assessments and conservation measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish stocks, including species impacted by deep-sea fishing which are not of commercial value (so-called non-target or bycatch species), and the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks. The key elements of the resolution are contained in paragraphs 119-120. Also crucially, the resolution called on States not to authorize bottom fishing activities until such measures have been adopted and implemented.
In addition to the UNGA, meetings of the Conferences of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have adopted a series of decisions calling for action. Most recently, the 2010 meeting of the 10th Conference of Parties called on high seas fishing nations to "fully and effectively implement" UNGA resolution 64/72.
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), through its member organisations, has participated in negotiations to implement the UN resolutions on bottom fishing around the world over the past six years. Based on direct experience and a review of various actions taken, the DSCC released a report in September 2011 - Unfinished Business: A Review of the Implementation of the Provisions of United Nations General Assembly Resolutions 61/105 and 64/72, Related to the Management of Bottom Fisheries in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction — to coincide with the 15-16 September workshop to review implementation of United Nations General Assembly resolutions 61/105 and 64/72. The main findings of the report include:
Based on this review, the DSCC concluded that high seas fishing States are, with few exceptions, failing to live up to the provisions of UNGA resolutions 61/105 and 64/72. As a result, deep sea stocks continue to be increasingly overexploited and vulnerable marine ecosystems may be lost. At the September 2011 workshop, the DSCC called on States fishing in areas where the UN resolutions have not been fully implemented to cease bottom fishing, as is required by resolution 64/72, until effective measures consistent with the resolutions are adopted and implemented, including required impact assessments.
The 2011 UNGA negotiations concluded in December 2011 with the adoption of a new resolution (66/68) on Oceans and Sustainable Fisheries, calling on high seas fishing nations to take stronger actions to protect deep sea life. Welcomed by the DSCC, resolution 66/88 reinforces the conclusions of our September report. It concludes that “urgent actions called for in the relevant paragraphs of [previously adopted UNGA resolutions] 61/105 and 64/72 have not been fully implemented” with respect to the regulation of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas and “emphasizes the need for full implementation by all States and relevant regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements of their commitments under those paragraphs on an urgent basis” to protect deep-sea ecosystems and species. The resolution further calls for strengthening procedures for conducting environmental impact assessments of high seas bottom fisheries and calls on States to publicize “without delay” the assessments and improve compliance with deep-sea fisheries regulations.
It is critical that the UNGA continues this level of oversight with regard to deep sea life lest it become a case of “out of sight out of mind”. Importantly, the new resolution called for more transparency in RFMOs and for impact assessments to be made public. These are important tools which DSCC will use to ensure transparency, accountability and compliance with the UNGA requirements by RFMOS.