Jeff Ardron of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, based in Germany (, spends a lot of time thinking about the high seas. He is active in no fewer than three distinct processes to identify ecologically important marine sites, specifically in areas beyond national jurisdiction:

  • Identifying vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) for regional fisheries management organizations in the context of bottom fisheries;
  • Identifying ecologically and biologically significant areas (EBSAs) in the context of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity; and
  • Identifying sites that could be of outstanding universal value (OUV) according to the natural criteria of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. (Note: The Convention as currently written does not address sites in areas beyond national jurisdiction.)

Because each of these designations derives from a separate international institution with its own unique goals, each process also involves its own set of criteria – a fact of life in global resource management. So a high seas site that meets the criteria for a VME, for example, may not qualify as an EBSA or meet the natural criteria for OUV.

MPA News: How would you characterize the main distinctions among ‘vulnerable marine ecosystems’, ‘ecologically and biologically significant areas’, and areas of ‘outstanding universal value’?

Jeff Ardron: There is certainly some overlap among these three designations, but also some important distinctions reflecting the different institutions from which they have evolved. The broadest of the three is EBSAs, under the Convention on Biological Diversity, wherein the intention is to describe ecologically important places in a given region. While the criteria were originally conceived with the open ocean and deep sea in mind, they have also been successfully applied in the nearshore. EBSAs are exclusively a scientific description and do not come with any attendant management requirements. The idea is to flag ecologically important areas so that they are known and taken into account by the various regulatory authorities. This is still a young process, with the first set of EBSAs recently accepted by the CBD Conference of Parties in October 2012. It remains to be seen how well the international competent authorities will voluntarily take them on board.VMEs, on the other hand, are already tightly linked to management – bottom fisheries – through two UN General Assembly resolutions. It falls to regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs

) and flag states to ensure that these UN resolutions are fulfilled. The VME criteria are very similar to the EBSA criteria, but emphasize in particular the fragility of the features and their susceptibility to damage from bottom fisheries. The UN resolutions were borne out of a concern about high seas bottom trawling, in particular, and the potential for widespread damage across the global ocean’s bottom habitats. Some progress has been made on protecting VMEs, but to date the focus has been on corals and sponges. Deep sea science indicates that many other species and habitats are also vulnerable, and hence further protections will be required.

The World Heritage Convention currently does not apply to areas beyond national jurisdiction; however, it is very likely that many areas meeting the OUV criteria do occur out there too. So in this case, we are just starting to work with UNESCO World Heritage Marine to bring together the scientific expertise necessary to begin to tentatively identify such places. Whether the World Heritage Convention would ever be amended, or whether a new instrument will be required, is hard to say. But I think that the first step to protecting such places is to draw attention to them. OUV criteria focus on picking “the best of the best” and so this is the most exclusive of the three criteria. I suspect that most, if not all, OUV areas on the high seas would also be EBSAs, but that does not mean that all EBSAs exhibit OUV.

MPA News: Can you give examples of high seas or deep ocean sites that qualify under two, or even all three, of these designations?

Ardron: First of all, I must stress that each of these designations is the responsibility of their conventions and implementing bodies, and so what I say is just opinion. To be an EBSA and a VME would require that a site is both ecologically important and vulnerable to bottom fisheries, and recognized by both the CBD and an RFMO. Ecologically speaking, there are many such places – certain seamounts, for example. However, from a process point of view, getting joint-designation is challenging because of the sector-based “silo” approach taken in the high seas, with competent authorities generally not coordinating with one another. That said, there has been some cooperation in the Northeast Atlantic between the RFMO (NEAFC) and the regional seas body (OSPAR), and I hope that will continue.

To meet OUV criteria, that hypothetical seamount VME/EBSA would also have to stand out significantly from others like it – perhaps an unusually dense collection of seamounts, or particularly shallow, or in an especially dynamic oceanographic area, etc. However, we are just starting this research.

For more information: Jeff Ardron, IASS, Potsdam, Germany. Email:

BOX: Simple site-selection tool for data-poor conditions

In the November 2012 issue of Marine Policy journal, Lydia Teh of the University of British Columbia (Canada) described a new site-selection tool for MPAs called the Protected Area Suitability Index, or PASI. Developed to be simple to use even in data-poor conditions, the tool assesses suitability of sites for protection based on fishers’ preferences for that site and the site’s conservation value. The paper is at

Tested by Teh in Malaysia, PASI tends to choose sites that are not preferred by fishers. “The tool will tend, for example, to give a higher protection suitability score to sites that are further away from a fishing village,” says Teh. “This is because of the set of heuristic rules that governs the distance attribute. In PASI, if the distance of the assessed site is very near to a fishing village, then its suitability outcome is low.” She notes, however, that the rules are adjustable to reflect local conditions. In a fishery with bigger boats and engines, for example, fishers may prefer to travel farther away to deeper water – in which case nearshore sites may be more suitable for protection, which PASI would indicate.

She says the tool requires only minimal training to use. “Anyone who is comfortable using a computer will be able to use PASI: it only requires the user to enter site data into an Excel spreadsheet,” she says. “Calibrating PASI requires a few additional steps to assign different rule weightings to reflect the characteristics of the local fishing environment.”

For more information: Lydia Teh, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, Canada. Email: