New High Seas Treaty Could Be a Gamechanger for the Ocean
By Tara Lohan
Most of us have never been to the world's immense last wilderness and never will. It's beyond the horizon and often past the limits of our imaginations. It contains towering underwater mountain ranges, ancient corals, mysterious, unknown forms of life and the largest seagrass meadow in the world.
Yet it begins just 200 nautical miles off our shores. Technically referred to as "areas beyond national jurisdiction," these remote expanses are known to most people simply as "the high seas."
Their vast, dark waters encompass roughly two-thirds of the ocean and half the planet and are the last great global commons. Yet just 1 percent are protected, leaving these vital but relatively lawless expanses open to overfishing, pollution, piracy and other threats.
That could change soon.
In 2018, after more than a decade of groundwork at the United Nations, negotiations officially began for a new treaty focused on conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the waters beyond national jurisdiction.
The proposed treaty is being developed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982 and defined nations' rights and responsibilities for use of the world's oceans. The Convention itself is a landmark agreement that established many key environmental protections and policies, but over the years it's become obvious that some gaps in its governance policy have left the ocean's ecosystems open to ongoing and emerging threats.
The new treaty is intended to help fill those gaps, although, as with any international agreement, that presents challenges. Representatives of world governments gathered in 2018 and 2019 for three rounds of negotiations, but many parts of the key issues remained unresolved. Among them are plans to establish a framework for evaluating and implementing area-based management tools, which include marine protected areas, since no such systems exist now for the high seas.
Other items requiring agreement include establishing uniform requirements for conducting environmental impact assessments; how benefits from marine genetic resources may be shared among nations; and capacity building for management and conservation.
Many experts hoped the fourth negotiation session, originally scheduled to begin March 23 at the U.N. headquarters in New York, would lead to the finalization of the treaty's text, but the meetings were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That pause gives us an opportunity to understand what's at stake a bit better.
"This is the first time that there's been a treaty process devoted to marine biodiversity in the high seas and the first ocean treaty really to be negotiated in over 30 years," said Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 environmental nonprofits and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "It's a big deal, and it's been a long time coming."
But this historic opportunity is also one that could be squandered if the treaty fails to enact protections strong enough to actually safeguard ocean life.
"It has the potential to be a gamechanger for the oceans," said Douglas McCauley, a professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology at U.C. Santa Barbara and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative. "But it's still to be determined whether it will be just the treaty version of lip service."
The Need for Protection
We're all connected to the high seas, even if we never actually see them, says Morgan Visalli, a project scientist at Benioff Ocean Initiative at U.C. Santa Barbara. "It's incredibly important for helping to regulate the climate, for providing oxygen, food and jobs."
Even on land we depend on a healthy ocean. Phytoplankton in the ocean generate half our oxygen, and the ocean plays a key role in mitigating climate change — absorbing 25 percent of our CO2 emissions and 90 percent of heat related to those emissions. It's also home to a rich diversity of species, some of which we're still discovering.
But marine ecosystems face grave threats from an onslaught of abuses: chemical, plastic and noise pollution; deep seabed mining and other kinds of resource extraction; increased shipping; overfishing and illegal fishing; and climate change, which is altering both the temperature and chemistry of the waters.
Cargo ship at sea. Bernard Spragg / public domain
Numerous strategies are needed to tackle these problems, including the bedrock component of reducing greenhouse gases.
But a key tool that scientists have identified to help restore biodiversity is establishing reserves, often referred to as ocean parks or marine protected areas.
We know pretty well how to do this in national waters — there are more than 15,000 of them already in places like Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Florida Keys. But few such protected areas exist in the high seas because there is no international framework to guide the process. One such effort to establish a marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea took years of research and diplomacy to implement.
It's simply not feasible to scale the process — especially in the time we'd need to do it. That's why creating such a framework for marine protected areas in waters outside of national waters is a key part of the new high-seas treaty negotiations.
And that fits into a larger global vision.
The participant nations in another international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, are set to convene this fall. The agenda includes a goal of enacting an international framework to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030.
It's a goal that scientists call a bare minimum. And it's one that may be impossible to meet without the high-seas treaty.
"The science is clear, if we're going to sustain a healthy, functioning ocean ecosystem, we need to be protecting at least 30% of the world's oceans," said Liz Karan, who leads efforts to protect the high seas for Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the High Seas Alliance.
In anticipation of the treaty's passage, scientists like Visalli and McCauley have already started modeling how new priority areas could be identified.
The high seas are our last global commons & essential to life on earth. As the UN weighs a groundbreaking #HighSeas… https://t.co/RZM4DToxhU— Benioff Ocean Initiative (@Benioff Ocean Initiative)1586294980.0
The other parts of the treaty, including environmental impact assessments and genetic resources, remain vital areas of discussion, but conservation groups have stressed the importance of protected ocean reserves for protecting the planet.
"If we want the ocean to continue its role in climate adaptation and being able to absorb the excess heat that it does, we need to create areas of resilience for the ocean," said Kalas. "And the best way to do that is marine protected areas."
Of course the devil is in the details.
While thousands of marine protected areas already exist, they come with varying levels of protections — much like we see with public lands. Some can be very restrictive, like national parks, or continue to allow extractive activities, such as in national forests.
Current marine protected areas range from no-take reserves that ban all extraction to areas allowing multiple uses — the latter are more common. Not surprisingly, though, scientific studies have shown that the no-take reserves do a much better job at protecting and restoring biodiversity.
Whether the treaty will be a landmark conservation effort or enshrine the status quo has yet to be determined, said Karan. "Both potential pathways are currently reflected in the draft treaty text" at this time.
From a scientific standpoint, McCauley says, marine protected areas should actually protect the wild character of the area and that means no activities — like mining or bottom trawling — that would disturb habitat. And the protections need to extend down from the ocean's surface, through the water column, to the seafloor.
A kelp forest in a marine protected area off the coast of California. Camille Pagniello / CC BY 2.0
To do that means figuring out how the new treaty would fit with a tangle of more than 20 existing governance organizations that regulate seabed mining, fisheries management and shipping regulations.
"One of our hopes is that this treaty would knit those pieces together and provide a little bit more coherence and compatibility with those issues, particularly with regards to conservation and sustainable use," said Karan.
There would also need to be a process for scientifically evaluating areas proposed for protections, and how the established reserves would be managed, and the restrictions enforced.
"The whole process, the whole vision and opportunity to think about doing something smarter and better — for the ocean, for biodiversity, for us — ends if we don't get strong language in the treaty and get that treaty to pass," said McCauley. "There's historical potential for the oceans, but we need to make sure people on the outside are watching the people on the inside [at the United Nations] in New York."
Even though official treaty negotiations are on hold awaiting a decision on rescheduling the talks, work continues among governments as they review and refine their positions on numerous proposals submitted by states and NGOs.
The United States has been a participant in the talks, but the treaty process has largely flown under the radar among the general public so far. Given President Trump's position on environmental protections and distain for multilateralism (like the Paris climate agreement), that's been pretty intentional on the part of environmental NGOs.
But as efforts may be nearing the finish line, this is starting to shift. Karan says there's more interest from legislators about high seas governance and more need to have an engaged public who can advocate for strong conservation protections.
Things are complicated, though, by the fact that the United States never ratified the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, widely considered a "Constitution" for the ocean.
There is hope from some of the participants that the United States could ratify the high seas treaty if it comes to fruition, say Karan. But no one is holding their breath for that. Kalas says the goal is that the treaty, once completed, would be widely supported, although it remains to be seen how many countries will sign on. "If only 40 countries ratify it, that wouldn't make it as strong of an agreement as if all the United Nation's 193 nations ratified the agreement," she said.
But there's a fine line between having an agreement that's universally supported and one that establishes concrete conservation actions and protections.
"Our concern is that in trying to get everyone in the tent as it were, we're going to wind up with a status-quo agreement," said Karan. "As much as we want a treaty, we want one that will make concrete change on the water."
And it's worth remembering, we're talking about a lot of water. When the next session convenes, she said, "states will decide the ocean's fate."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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