Global Ocean

Global Ocean Governance Lecture Discusses Biodiversity Treaty

The University’s Urban Coast Institute and Institute for Global Understanding held their second Global Ocean Governance lecture via Zoom on Thursday, Nov. 5. Titled “Connected, Dynamic, at Risk: Coastal Nation Interests in a Strong New High Seas Biodiversity Treaty,” the lecture featured Rutgers University Associate Professor Cymie Payne and Guillermo Ortuño Crespo, postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and coordinator of early career professional engagement for the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science.

The Global Ocean Governance series is meant to address cutting edge issues that are of relevance to the marine environment across many subtopics, according to Randall Abate, J.D., in his opening remarks. The lecture had more than 70 registered attendees from 14 countries.

Lecture presenters Payne and Crespo met at the United Nations while working on a prospective global treaty for biodiversity in the high seas and its particular value to coastal and island nations, she Payne explained.

“The United States is a preeminent maritime power and it’s a coastal state,” Payne said. “We’re speaking to you two days after Americans voted, and we don’t yet know the results yet… but America’s interests in a strong, new, high seas biodiversity treaty remain compelling.

The main area beyond the 12 mile territorial sea and the 200 mile exclusive economic zone, as well as the seabed beyond the extended continental shelf where it exists are the subject of this treaty. “It’s an almost imaginary zone for many of us,” Payne said. “For most of us, it doesn’t allow easy access despite the beautiful, rich, complex life forms that inhabit it. These life forms are also essential for our own existence.”

The United States’ land is about 3.8 million square miles and U.S. waters are 4.3 million square miles, partly because of islands like Hawaii that have a great sea area, Payne said. “The U.S. hasn’t finished mapping its extended continental shelf which is probably more than one and a half times the size of Texas.”

Crespo’s side of the lecture dealt with transboundary connectivity, biodiversity in the high seas and the risks that many species face in areas beyond national jurisdiction. “Coastal states such as the United States should care quite a lot about what happens beyond the 200 nautical mile boundary,” Crespo said.

The amount of pressure humans have placed, ecologically speaking, on this other half of our planet far exceeds the ability of these ecosystems to assimilate that stress, according to Crespo.

“We’re seeing that a lot of the populations that inhabit these distant waters are facing threatening ecological population levels, and if the open ocean was disconnected from the coastal ocean, [as well as] disconnected from our lives and our economies, perhaps that wouldn’t be a reason for concern. I will hopefully convince you today that the high seas are highly connected to our coastal communities and our coastal systems.”

There are records of at least 23,000 species which inhabit waters beyond national jurisdiction, Crespo said. Most of these species are invertebrates, but many of them, including fish, seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles, engage in transboundary movements or annual migrations. “They connect, spawning and feeding grounds in the coastal ocean to other national waters and the high seas.”

There does not exist meaningful biodiversity information for fish in most of the ocean, Crespo explained. “As we move forward with this treaty, it’s important to acknowledge that [with] many parts of the ocean, we still don’t know what biodiversity lies there,” Crespo said. “We should embrace a precautionary approach towards human use of those spaces.”

There are two types of ecological connectivity, Crespo explained. Planktonic, or passive connectivity, which is driven by ocean currents. Small organisms do not have the locomotion power to swim wherever they choose, so they are redistributed with the currents. “That’s how a lot of the larvae of corals redistribute and settle,” Crespo said.

The other type of connectivity is known as nektonic, or active connectivity. “That is where the animals, via locomotion, decide their horizontal and vertical position in the water,” Crespo said. “Many of these species, such fish, sharks, seabirds or marine mammals engage in huge migrations across entire ocean basins in search for food or breeding grounds.”

Tony MacDonald, Director of the Urban Coast Institute, considers there to be many international opportunities ahead, particularly for biodiversity. “[This lecture is] an opportunity for us to hopefully learn and take some action moving forward,” MacDonald said.