Protection of the High Seas

April 25, 2021

Daviana Berkowitz-Sklar & Martha Stevens, Yale University & Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

The Sargasso Sea (file photo)
SargassoSea_Mata-Lara_C247

The Sargasso Sea (file photo)

The oceans are essential to our planet and our lives. They provide oxygen in the air we breathe, food for millions, a habitat for aquatic species, and magnificent beauty, as well as many other benefits to humankind. The protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems is vital for human survival, yet the ocean presents a particularly complex arena for regulation. It is only within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which are areas of the ocean that are controlled by a certain country, that governments can pass and enforce regulations. EEZs are found within 200 nautical miles off the coast of maritime countries. However, over 64% of the ocean surface is known as the high seas or Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ). This part of our oceans is owned by no one and everyone. Unfortunately, conservation in international waters is especially difficult, leading to ecological and social concerns regarding the overexploitation of fish stocks as well as the increased threat to vulnerable or endangered species. Because the high seas make up 90% of the volume of global living space due to their depth, it is crucial to improve the governance of international waters.

The protection of the high seas has been an ongoing struggle, since it is very difficult to reach a consensus on enforceable international law that addresses the needs of all parties and stakeholders. Existing frameworks within the United Nations have attempted to confront these challenges. For example, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) calls on states to "protect and preserve the marine environment". Additionally, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has recognized the need for better protection of areas beyond national jurisdiction and established recurring meetings to discuss just that. Through these discussions, the following question has been debated: Are existing frameworks capable of tackling the complexities of international ocean management? Even though progress under existing frameworks has been slow, there has been some momentum in limited areas around the world, one of them being the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Sargasso Sea is one of the areas in our oceans that mostly does not fall under the jurisdiction of a particular country. It is an incredibly valuable ecosystem also known as the Atlantic`s floating rainforest. It is an important nursery for many economically and ecologically important and beloved creature such as sea turtle and eel species; approximately 100 million dollars in annual revenue is provided from fisheries that depend on this ecosystem. For these reasons and many more, several nations surrounding the Sargasso Sea have taken charge in trying to protect and preserve this part of the Atlantic and its resources.

The Sargasso Sea Commission was formed with the mission to secure global recognition for the importance of this high seas area, in order to increase collaborative management efforts using existing legal frameworks. The committee's main achievement up to date has been the negotiation of the Hamilton Declaration. This is a non-binding legal document that promotes local and international collaboration amongst governments, research institutions and other stakeholders.

The conservation efforts in the Sargasso Sea present many lessons on the potential and limitations of existing frameworks for collaborative and inclusive ocean governance in the high seas. During the coming weeks on board the Corwith Cramer, we will be diving into this topic with our conservation and management project. We look forward to exploring the ecological, economic, social and cultural factors that underly environmental management in order to inform effective and just solutions for the ocean and the communities that rely on it.

- Daviana and Martha

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