Approximately half of the Earth’s surface consists of the high seas: open-ocean and deep-sea ecosystems beyond the 200-nautical-mile marine jurisdiction of any coastal state. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nations hold a duty to protect the marine environment and to conserve the living resources of the high seas.

But the high seas are also open to all nations, and subject to freedoms of fishing and navigation. For such activities to be limited, multilateral agreements are necessary. Such agreements are binding upon their signatory nations, but not upon others.

While there are several multilateral environmental and conservation agreements dealing with the high seas, few establish MPAs as such. Last year, MPA News (2:1) reported on various activities by scientists and governments to support the designation of MPAs in international waters. New information is now available.

New report on high-seas resources

To this point in time, there has been relatively little international attention paid to the subject of high-seas MPAs. This may be due, in part, to the fact that fishing on the high seas accounts for a relatively small fraction of global fishing activity. Also, until very recently, little was known scientifically or commercially about open-ocean and deep-sea ecosystems, including hydrothermal vents and seamounts.

A new report commissioned by WWF (an international NGO) and IUCN (World Conservation Union) suggests that the current growth and improved technological capacity of some industries — including demersal fishing — pose potential threats to the deep sea. The Status of Natural Resources on the High Seas: An Environmental Perspective identifies high-seas areas of particular scientific, social or economic interest, and considers their value as MPAs.

The report strongly encourages the designation of MPAs around seamounts. These steep-sided, undersea mountains are estimated to exist in the tens of thousands around the world, although the precise location of many of them is not yet known. The upwelling around their edges can support biodiverse communities: over 70 species of commercially valuable fish, shellfish, and corals have variously been found around seamounts. The distribution of many seamount species appears to be highly localized.

These sites have experienced a recent surge in interest from the fishing industry as inshore fish stocks have been depleted. In the Indian Ocean, the discovery of orange roughy on seamounts has led to a boom in that fishery. The limiting factor to this exploitation has been the general lack of knowledge of seamount location.

“Sacrificial” seamounts

Any international effort to create high-seas MPAs around seamounts will encounter a challenge similarly faced in almost all international agreements, says Charlotte de Fontaubert of IUCN, a co-author of the WWF/IUCN report. That is, only the signatories to the agreement must abide by it.

“It is clear that, in the short term at least, only a handful of [nations] will abide by the MPAs that they alone will recognize around the seamounts,” says de Fontaubert. “As a result, a number of seamounts will necessarily be ‘sacrificed’ by being identified as an MPA, where only the fishermen of the [nations willing to forego fishing there] will be excluded. For the rest of the fishing fleet, this will be a red flag, pointing to an area where the resources are worthy of protection, meaning that they are also valuable.”

De Fontaubert says delegates of countries likely to participate in any future seamount-protection scheme, including Australia, have told her that the pioneer MPAs will not be around the most valuable seamounts, since it is anticipated that the first seamount MPAs will be severely impacted by non-complying nations. “In other words, everyone realizes that there will be a very high short-term price to pay in terms of the state of the resources, but this is pretty much unavoidable,” she said.

Workshop on high-seas MPAs

The applicability of high-seas MPAs was the point of debate at an international workshop held in March 2001 in Vilm, Germany. Funded primarily by the German government, the workshop convened experts on international law, nature conservation, and marine ecology. Some participants advocated the use of MPAs for the protection of a range of high-seas ecosystems and species. Others questioned the appropriateness of the tool, suggesting that MPAs on the high seas could be viewed as having an occupational character; that character would seemingly contradict the freedoms of the high seas under international law.

Bernard Oxman, a law professor at the University of Miami (US), says that MPAs, if applied to high-seas resource management, should be used carefully. Attempting to apply the same MPA tool to a wide range of high-seas conservation issues — from seamounts, to deep-sea vents, to whales and even seabirds — is dubious, he says.

“My questions relate to the substantive and procedural utility of linking different objectives in different areas, or with respect to different resources, under some general category such as MPAs,” said Oxman. “The mere fact that one state might proffer good [MPA-related] solutions with respect to one type of problem in one area does not mean that the conceptual solutions it supports would have that effect elsewhere, or that the precedent set would further environmental goals in general.”

He suggests that specific management tools and organizational arrangements appropriate to the particular problem at hand should be utilized, such as restrictions on fishing adopted by the relevant fisheries management organization, or limitations on mining adopted by the International Seabed Authority. These can be both general and area-specific, says Oxman.

Hjalmar Thiel of the University of Hamburg (Germany), who served as a chair of the workshop, said its consensus conclusions and summary record would stimulate discussions on high-seas protected areas within the UN Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and Law of the Sea. Among the conclusions were:

  1. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides the framework for all action to conserve biodiversity and other components of the high-seas environment.
  2. There are areas of the high seas where more effective means of sustainable management and conservation within the framework are considered desirable, and in some cases urgent. These means may include MPAs and other tools.
  3. It is essential to recognize the need for responses to threats to biodiversity and various components of the marine environment in the high seas to match in their speed the rapidity by which threats can arise and be realized.

[The proceedings Expert Workshop on Managing Risks to Biodiversity and the Environment on the High Seas, Including Tools Such as Marine Protected Areas — Scientific Requirements and Legal Aspects published as “BfN Skripten 43” may be ordered from: International Academy for Nature Conservation, Isle of Vilm, 18581 Lauterbach/Ruegen, Germany. E-mail:]

For more information

Charlotte de Fontaubert, IUCN, 1630 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA. Tel: +1 202 487 8838; E-mail:

Bernard Oxman, School of Law, University of Miami, 1311 Miller Drive, Coral Gables, Florida 33124-0221, USA. Tel: +1 305 284 2293; E-mail:

Hjalmar Thiel, University of Hamburg, Poppenbutteler Markt 8 A, 22399 Hamburg, Germany. Tel: +49 40 6087 5985; E-mail:

Box: WWF/IUCN report available

Co-authored by Charlotte de Fontaubert, of IUCN, and the Deepseas Benthic Biology Group of Southampton Oceanography Centre (UK), the report The Status of Natural Resources on the High Seas: An Environmental Perspective is available online at: