Out of sight, out of mind? Why the high seas matter to vulnerable coastal communities

Article, 22 March 2019

They may be hundreds of miles away, but what happens in the high seas can have a significant impact on coastal waters and vulnerable coastal communities, as a recent IIED webinar discussed.

Fishing boats in Viet Nam

These remote seas – known as areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) – do not fall under any system of governance. Yet what happens here – be it fishing, dumping of waste or extraction of genetic resources – can have an impact on coastal waters controlled by national governments because of the connectivity of the ecosystems through ocean currents and the movement of migratory species.

Millions of people in vulnerable coastal communities depend heavily on coastal resources. Consequently, conserving and managing ecologically-connected ABNJ can have significant socioeconomic benefits for these communities.

On 18 March, Ekaterina Popova, a senior research scientist and ocean modeller at the UK National Oceanography Centre, and William Cheung, associate professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, Canada, discussed the scientific evidence behind interconnectedness between the high seas and territorial waters under a changing climate, and how this could inform inclusive ocean governance.

Essam Yassin Mohammed, head of blue economy at IIED, hosted the webinar, which also discussed how different plausible ‘ocean futures’ – scenarios of climate change, societal change, and marine protected area coverage – might affect biodiversity in the high seas, potential revenue from fish in coastal developing states and more generally, the resilience of vulnerable coastal communities.

Popova presented evidence showing that some areas beyond national jurisdiction are much more connected to the coastal zones of least developed countries than others. Watch her presentation below or on IIED's YouTube channel.

And Cheung demonstrated that fishing efforts on the high seas is one of the most important drivers of future change in biodiversity and fish catches in coastal waters, across a range of future scenarios. Watch his presentation below or on IIED's YouTube channel.

What goes on in the high seas, the detail of ocean governance negotiations in relation to biodiversity, and the connectivity between ABNJ and coastal territorial waters, are all relatively unknown niche areas occupied by a small, but growing, number of research and legal specialists. This webinar helped to get the conversation out into the open and to a wider audience.

Questions to the presenters included whether there was any evidence on the impact of high seas’ activities other than fishing on marine ecosystems and communities’ livelihoods. Or whether there were specific species in the least developed countries' coastal areas that would be affected.

Another participant was interested in the impact of seabed mining on coastal communities. As it happens, activity in areas beyond national jurisdiction relating to non-living resources on the sea bed, such as minerals and cabling, does have a governance framework under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), overseen by the International Seabed Authority. But despite that, the impact of mining is highly likely to affect high seas biodiversity, and in turn, coastal areas.

Ocean currents and migratory species do not change their behaviour according to governance systems or scientific evidence, but humans can.

There is an urgent need to negotiate a legally binding instrument to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction; we must share the evidence about the interconnectivity of marine ecosystems widely. The high seas may be out of sight, but they should very much be at the forefront of our minds.