‘What on Earth is BBNJ?’, you are probably asking right now. It stands for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction. And the question should probably be ‘What on Ocean…?, since 71 per cent of our planet is covered by ocean. Of that, 64 per cent (40 per cent of the entire surface of Earth) is in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ); the dark blue in the picture. This lies outside the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of countries, where there is very little in place to protect the biodiversity. Most of what is in place is related to deep-sea fishing and ocean mining and is just not strong enough to ensure that it will not be destroyed.
That is why the United Nations is pursuing a new global agreement on conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ Agreement). It is also why CARICOM held its third meeting on BBNJ here in Barbados this week, hosted by the Government of Barbados, The Pew Charitable Trusts and The High Seas Alliance, and opened by the Minister of Maritime Affairs and the Blue Economy of Barbados the Hon. Kirk Humphrey.
The next question you are probably asking is ‘Why should we care about that stuff way out there?’ There are several reasons. First, there is a lot out there that we do not even know about yet. The deep sea is less known that the Moon or Mars. What little is known, apart from being fascinating, seems to have a lot of potential to be of benefit to mankind, especially as a source of genetic material that can be used for new drugs and antibiotics.
Just as important is the fact that those ecosystems out there are essential for the survival of life on Earth as we know it. They produce a considerable part of the oxygen we breathe and are ecologically linked to the ecosystems that are within our national waters and support our economies – just think Blue Economy.
Small island developing states are especially dependent on ocean ecosystems – think fisheries and tourism. That is why CARICOM countries met here in Barbados to develop their input to this new BBNJ Agreement. The third CARICOM Consultation on BBNJ aimed to develop a common position to be taken to the discussions and negotiations that will take place at the United Nations headquarters in New York in August.
A major concern is how small underdeveloped countries can get a share of the financial benefits from deep sea exploration even though we do not have the technological capacity to do it ourselves. Since ABNJ is not owned by any countries it is argued that it is a ‘common heritage of mankind’ and that all should benefit. Also of concern is how to ensure protection, so that those who can exploit the deep sea do not destroy it for profit, leaving us to deal with the aftermath – think climate change.
These topics were all discussed at the meeting here this week. Regional and international experts shared their ideas and engaged with national experts and negotiators from CARICOM’s UN Missions in New York.
In my view, we now have a good grasp of the issues of importance to CARICOM countries and have good ideas on how to address them. It will now be up to our negotiators to find like-minded countries in other regions and stand their ground together with them against some of the more powerful countries that would prefer to have free reign in their approach to ABNJ. Getting a strong agreement is an essential starting point for protecting marine BBNJ and getting our share of the benefits.
Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES)
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus