International solutions are needed to protect the ocean. Two sets of regulations currently being developed offer the possibility of extending protections, but a greater degree of alignment between the two needs to be achieved. In a new scientific paper, researchers from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany explain how this could be achieved. States will meet again in July and August to continue their negotiations.

The ocean plays a key role in sustaining life on our planet. However, existing regulatory frameworks for marine conservation only target individual sectors such as fishing, mining or shipping. “These governance regimes are too fragmented to safeguard the integrity of the marine environment in the long term. This is of particular concern with regard to areas beyond national jurisdiction, where pressure on ecosystems is increasing due to both from more intensive use of marine resources and climate change,” says the study’s lead author, Sabine Christiansen.

The ecosystem approach seeks to balance conservation and human use

Away from the coast, in areas beyond national jurisdiction, there are two legally distinct zones of regulation: on the one hand, the international seabed, the so-called “Zone” with its mineral resources, and on the other part, the column of water above it, the “high seas”. Management of mineral resources in the Area is the responsibility of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is currently discussing a set of regulations to enable future exploitation activities. From the end of July, the member states of the ISA will meet at the organization’s headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, to continue negotiations on this subject.

At the same time, multilateral negotiations are taking place on an international agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (the BBNJ treaty). The fifth and for the moment last round of negotiations at the United Nations should take place at the end of August in New York (IGC 5). Despite the far-reaching implications of deep-sea mining for the protection of deep-sea species and habitats, the two negotiation processes have so far largely taken place separately. In their article, the authors develop options to improve the interaction of these two processes.

Regional environmental management plans to guide decision-making

The ecosystem approach has been identified as a best practice for ocean governance. This approach aims to manage human activities with the aim of maintaining or restoring the health of spatially defined ecosystems. “The management of human activities must change: we need an integrated and coherent global governance solution. The ecosystem approach is the most promising of the options available, as it provides a clear framework, but also allows solutions to be developed on measure for specific contexts,” says Christiansen.

Regional environmental management plans, such as those envisaged by the International Seabed Authority for the implementation of its environmental commitments, could play a particular role in integrated ocean management. These plans have the potential to support informed decision-making in regions with mining interests in order to establish thresholds of impacts on affected marine regions. Basically, the plans seek to balance economic and environmental interests against longer-term conservation goals. So far, however, the ISA has neglected to exploit this potential. For example, in a draft regional environmental management plan currently under consideration for the “Mid-Atlantic Ridge”, an area of ​​the central Atlantic with significant hydrothermal vent fields, stakeholder interests mining takes precedence over the conservation of deep-sea species and habitats.

Enable broad stakeholder participation

An ambitious BBNJ treaty should reinforce and support the implementation of marine conservation goals and environmental impact assessment standards formulated by the Seabed Authority, the authors insist. Consistent and consistent integration of sectoral, regional and global goals, standards and measures would be a major step towards adopting an ecosystem-based management approach. Deep-sea mining could then only be permitted to the extent that regional and global environmental quality objectives and standards will demonstrably not be compromised. The ecosystem approach also provides for broad-based stakeholder participation, continuous assessment of the environmental impacts of deep sea mining, and comprehensive risk management in accordance with the precautionary principle.

Deep sea mining and its impacts on the marine environment have recently received considerable attention at the G7 Summit in Elmau and the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon. The ‘Ocean Deal’ agreed by G7 leaders under the German Presidency includes a commitment to a far-reaching precautionary approach to potential mining of marine minerals in the area, with the aim of preventing impacts negative environmental. Several countries went further at the UN Ocean Conference, including the Pacific states of Palau and Fiji, as well as Chile, calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. French President Emmanuel Macron even called for a legal framework to prevent deep sea mining.