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World Heritage in the High Seas: A New Ray of Hope for Our Ocean Commons

Humpback whale in the Sargasso Sea. © Andrew Stevenson
Humpback whale in the Sargasso Sea. © Andrew Stevenson

Sunken coral islands, floating rainforests, giant undersea volcanoes or even spires of rock resembling sunken cities: none of these sites can be inscribed on the World Heritage List because they are found in the High Seas, the parts of Earth’s ocean that are outside of any national jurisdiction.

Nekton Foundation
(c) NektonMission

A report launched this week by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) explores the different ways the World Heritage Convention may one day apply to these wonders of the open ocean, which covers more than half the planet. In this column, Dr. Fanny Douvere, Head, Marine Programme, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, makes the case for why the world needs to make this idea reality.

Last week, I had the privilege of touring the edge of the Sargasso Sea by submersible. As we slipped beneath the waves, it was truly breathtaking, teeming with life. The Sargasso is the only sea in the world that is bounded by ocean currents rather than coastlines. It is a world unto itself, drifting freely in the North Atlantic.

Click the image to download a PDF of the report "World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time Has Come"
Click the image to download a PDF of the report “World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time Has Come”

We launched there a groundbreaking new report, World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. The High Seas cover half of our planet, and include biodiversity and natural phenomena that we have only begun to discover. The Sargasso is just one of many marvels that lie beyond national boundaries.

Imagine a world with sunken coral islands, giant volcanoes forming vast seamounts that would dwarf the tallest mountains on land, or a deep dark place with white rock spires resembling a lost city beneath the waves. Some of these places are not even powered by the light of the sun, but by heat and energy from the Earth. This is the High Seas.

Just as on land, the deepest and most remote ocean harbors globally unique places that deserve recognition, just as we have given to the Grand Canyon National Park in the United States of America, to the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, or the Serengeti National Park of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Illustration of sargassum and associated marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. Sargassum is a brown algae that forms a unique and highly productive floating ecosystem on the surface of the open ocean. (NOAA) Click image to enlarge.
Illustration of sargassum and associated marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. Sargassum is a brown algae that forms a unique and highly productive floating ecosystem on the surface of the open ocean. (NOAA) Click image to enlarge.

Although the open ocean is remote, it is not safe from threats like climate change, deep seabed mining, navigation and plastic pollution. That is why the World Heritage Centre and the International Union for he Conservation of Nature partnered with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, The French Marine Protected Area Agency, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Nekton Mission to explore the potential for applying the World Heritage Convention to iconic sites in the High Seas.

The 1972 World Heritage Convention was created to safeguard sites of natural or cultural significance that “need to be preserved as part of the world heritage of mankind as a whole.” Following over two years of research and nearly six years at the helm of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme, I found it difficult to imagine that the founders of one of the most successful international tools for conservation meant to exclude half the surface of the Earth.

Uniquely beautiful jellyfish observed while exploring the informally named “Enigma Seamount” at a depth of 3,700 meters. Copyright: © Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.
Uniquely beautiful jellyfish observed while exploring the informally named “Enigma Seamount.”  © Image courtesy of NOAA
Crossota, a deep red medusa found just off the botom of the deep sea. Alaska, Beaufort Sea, North of Point Barrow. © Kevin Raskoff / NOAA / Wikipedia
Crossota, a deep red medusa found just off the botom of the deep sea. Alaska, Beaufort Sea, North of Point Barrow. © Kevin Raskoff / NOAA / Wikipedia

The report looks at five sites that illustrate different ecosystems only found in the depths of the ocean. Each could be recognized as having outstanding universal value that transcends national boundaries, making them candidates for World Heritage recognition and protection.

Enlarge image by clicking on it
Enlarge image by clicking on it

In addition to the Sargasso Sea, these sites include the Costa Rica Thermal Dome, an ocean oasis in the Pacific Ocean that provides critical habitat for many endangered species; the White Shark Café, the only known gathering point for white sharks in the north Pacific; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field, an 800-meter-deep area dominated by carbonate monoliths up to 60 meters high in the Atlantic Ocean; and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island in the subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean.

The World Heritage system has a 40-year history of identifying and overseeing the state of conservation of places of Outstanding Universal Value across 163 nations and has had ample successes. Such institutional experience is unparalleled in nature conservation. In a February interview with the New York Times, one of the world’s most renowned biologists, E.O. Wilson, called for creating something equivalent to the UN World Heritage sites to protect the open ocean as priceless assets of humanity.

Enlarge image by clicking on it
Enlarge image by clicking on it

The UNESCO-IUCN report represents a major step forward in the decades long effort to better protect this global commons. There is still work to do, since the current World Heritage process relies on states to nominate and protect sites within their territories, and the High Seas fall outside any nation’s jurisdiction. But this is merely a historical oversight that needs to be corrected; the preamble of the World Heritage Convention does not exclude places beyond national jurisdiction.

Given that two-thirds of fish stocks in the deep ocean are already harvested unsustainably, and the work underway to amend the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention for a possible new agreement for High Seas protection, the time has come to apply our most powerful conservation tool to this last ocean frontier. World Heritage in the High Seas is truly an idea whose time has come.

Read more: http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1535

The work is made possible through the support of the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, the French Marine Protected Area Agency (AAMP) and the Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre. The initiative also received support from the Nekton Foundation.

user_116639-370-390-20160803225929-1Dr. Fanny Douvere is the coordinator of the Marine Programme at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, France. Since October 2009, her mission is to ensure the 49 marine sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List are conserved and sustainably managed so future generations can continue to enjoy them. She recently wrote in Nature on why not investing in marine World Heritage is a lost opportunity for the oceans.

Prior to her work at the World Heritage Centre, she co-initiated and led the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) initative at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. In 2009 she co-published the UNESCO guide Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach Toward Ecosystem-based Management. The guide has gained international recognition for setting a standard for the application of MSP and is available in six languages. She also served as an advisor to the United States Executive Office of the President (Council of Environmental Quality) on the development of the US Framework for Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning.

She co-authored more than 20 articles in internationally peer-reviewed journals on both marine World Heritage and MSP. Most recently, she authored for World Heritage Marine Sites Managing effectively the world’s most iconic Marine Protected Areas. A Best Practice Guide, in which she lays out a tangible approach for marine protected area management based on the fundamental idea that all things happen in time and space and the oceans should be managed accordingly.

Fanny obtained her PhD in 2010 from the Ghent University in Belgium and published the book Marine Spatial Planning: Concepts, current practice and linkages to other management approaches.

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