Small Island States with Big Ocean Visions

Over the next two weeks I will be representing the world's smallest nation, the Republic of Nauru, at a meeting at the United Nations aimed at protecting the world's greatest natural asset, the ocean. For the people of small islands, understanding the importance of the ocean to human survival is as natural as breathing. If the ocean is healthy, we are healthy; if the future of the ocean is uncertain, so is ours. It is therefore alarming to witness the warming, rising and acidification of the sea around us due to climate change, and the increasing pressure on tuna and other fish stocks we depend on, and it has made Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like mine among the loudest voices calling for international action.

Along with our fellow SIDS, Nauru has been working for years to encourage all governments to prioritize ocean health, and we celebrated a year ago when a coalition of states and organizations succeeded in securing a strong Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG 14. Over the coming days our task at this Prepcom meeting is to begin translating our shared visions for addressing threats to the ocean into the terms of a breakthrough international agreement to conserve and sustainably use biological diversity in areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction (the BBNJ), or the high seas. This is vital as what happens on the high seas directly affects territorial waters. Neither fish, nor pollution, nor the impacts of climate change pay any attention to the 200 nautical mile demarcation lines that divide national from international waters. If we are serious about protecting the ocean, and meeting the targets contained in SDG 14, we must agree on how to effectively, sustainably and fairly govern and manage the high seas. And we must do so without delay.

Negotiating a new, legally-binding international agreement on marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is an immensely complex undertaking, but when completed it will take its place as one of the great international legal instruments of our time. It is a responsibility that delegates meeting in New York do not take lightly, but also one that we must execute with a degree of urgency. Maintaining the status quo will not keep us comfortably ticking along; it will leave the high seas - half the surface of the Earth - in continued peril of unregulated exploitation, and hold back efforts to boost the resilience of the ocean to climate change. For vulnerable island and coastal communities this spells disaster. Fortunately, the successful negotiation of the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 gives us momentum, and offers hope that a robust High Seas Biodiversity Agreement can be swiftly reached. The task before us may be complex, but much of what should constitute the foundations of the agreement has already been laid by marine scientists and the negotiators of earlier agreements.

2016-09-01-1472739754-806244-ChristianVizlMarinePhotobank.jpg©ChristianVizl/MarinePhotobank

The High Seas Biodiversity Agreement should focus on how the high seas can be jointly governed in order to meet the SDG 14 targets and all the goals agreed to under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These targets include to "sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience"; to "end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans"; and to "conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas." The BBNJ can be a key partner in implementing this ambitious, and essential, agenda, but only if it lives up to the challenge by including the mechanisms needed to eliminate harmful and illegal fishing, and establish marine protected areas, including reserves, on the high seas so that biodiversity and ecosystems can flourish. It must also contain provisions that ensure that access to and benefits from the natural resources of the high seas are equitably shared among all nations, large or small.

When we take our seats at the discussions on the substance of the new High Seas Biodiversity Agreement at the UN this week, the delegates from SIDS may represent only a tiny proportion of the world's population, but we feel that we also speak for the ocean. We hope that all states will seize this exciting opportunity to forge a new future of responsible, science-based high seas governance that benefits all people and conserves the blue heart of the ocean. We believe it is a vision well within our reach.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with the UN's Preparatory Committee Meeting (Aug 26-Sept 9) on an internal legally binding instrument on marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction and is a part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.