World Heritage in the High Seas: A New Ray of Hope for Our Ocean Commons


The High Seas span our globe, covering half the earth. But they are unprotected. The UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme, in close collaboration with IUCN, is exploring the potential of the 1972 World Heritage Convention to preserve places in areas beyond national jurisdiction that might be of Outstanding Universal Value. The work is made possible through the support of the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation and with additional support from the French Marine Protected Area Agency (AAMP).

World Heritage in the High Seas: A New Ray of Hope for Our Ocean Commons

National Geographic Ocean Views
August 5, 2016
By Fanny Douvere

Sunken coral islands, floating rainforests, giant undersea volcanoes or even spires of rock resembling sunken cities: none of these sites can be inscribed on the World Heritage List because they are found in the High Seas, the part’s of Earth’s ocean that are outside of any national jurisdiction.

A report launched this week by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) explores the different ways the World Heritage Convention may one day apply to these wonders of the open ocean, which covers more than half the planet. In this column, Dr. Fanny Douvere, Head, Marine Programme, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, makes the case for why the world needs to make this idea reality.

Last week, I had the privilege of touring the edge of the Sargasso Sea by submersible. As we slipped beneath the waves, it was truly breathtaking, teeming with life. The Sargasso is the only sea in the world that is bounded by ocean currents rather than coastlines. It is a world unto itself, drifting freely in the North Atlantic.

We launched there a groundbreaking new report, World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. The High Seas cover half of our planet, and include biodiversity and natural phenomena that we have only begun to discover. The Sargasso is just one of many marvels that lie beyond national boundaries.

Imagine a world with sunken coral islands, giant volcanoes forming vast seamounts that would dwarf the tallest mountains on land, or a deep dark place with white rock spires resembling a lost city beneath the waves. Some of these places are not even powered by the light of the sun, but by heat and energy from the Earth. This is the High Seas.

Just as on land, the deepest and most remote ocean harbors globally unique places that deserve recognition, just as we have given to the Grand Canyon National Park in the United States of America, to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, or the Serengeti National Park of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Although the open ocean is remote, it is not safe from threats like climate change, deep seabed mining, navigation and plastic pollution. That is why the World Heritage Centre and the International Union for he Conservation of Nature partnered with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, The French Marine Protected Area Agency, JaegerLeCoultre and Nekton Mission to explore the potential for applying the World Heritage Convention to iconic sites in the High Seas.

The 1972 World Heritage Convention was created to safeguard sites of natural or cultural significance that “need to be preserved as part of the world heritage of mankind as a whole.” Following over two years of research and nearly six years at the helm of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme, I found it difficult to imagine that the founders of one of the most successful international tools for conservation meant to exclude half the surface of the Earth.

The report looks at five sites that illustrate different ecosystems only found in the depths of the ocean. Each could be recognized as having outstanding universal value that transcends national boundaries, making them candidates for World Heritage recognition and protection.

In addition to the Sargasso Sea, these sites include the Costa Rica Thermal Dome, an ocean oasis in the Pacific Ocean that provides critical habitat for many endangered species; the White Shark Cafe, the only known gathering point for white sharks in the north Pacific; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field, an 800 meter deep area dominated by carbonate monoliths up to 60 meters high in the Atlantic Ocean; and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island in the subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean.

The World Heritage system has a 40-year history of identifying and overseeing the state of conservation of places of Outstanding Universal Value across 163 nations and has had ample successes. Such institutional experience is unparalleled in nature conservation. In a February interview with the New York Times, one of the world’s most renowned biologists, E.O. Wilson, called for creating something equivalent to the UN World Heritage sites to protect the open ocean as priceless assets of humanity.

The UNESCO-IUCN report represents a major step forward in the decades long effort to better protect this global commons. There is still work to do, since the current World Heritage process relies on states to nominate and protect sites within their territories, and the High Seas fall outside any nation’s jurisdiction. But this is merely a historical oversight that needs to be corrected; the preamble of the World Heritage Convention does not exclude places beyond national jurisdiction.

Given that two-thirds of fish stocks in the deep ocean are already harvested unsustainably, and the work underway to amend the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention for a possible new agreement for High Seas protection, the time has come to apply our most powerful conservation tool to this last ocean frontier. World Heritage in the High Seas is truly an idea whose time has come.

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The work is made possible through the support of the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, the French Marine Protected Area Agency (AAMP) and the Swiss watchmaker JaegerLeCoultre. The initiative also received support from the Nekton Foundation.

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