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Meet BBNJ, the New oceans treaty to protect marine biodiversity on the high seas

A new legally binding international instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction – known as ‘BBNJ‘ has been agreed on the 4th of March at the end of the 5th round of treaty negotiations at the United Nations headquarters in New York, United States.

This new BBNJ legally-binding instrument was developed through a series of conferences under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) since 2018.

Commenting on the treaty, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said “Following almost two decades of discussions and negotiations, I am pleased to see the conclusion of the new legally binding instrument on marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, which was finalized in New York on Saturday 4 March.

The BBNJ treaty addresses, among other things:

  • the conservation and sustainable use of marine BBNJ;
  • marine genetic resources, including questions on benefit-sharing (MGR);
  • Area Based Management Tools (ABMT), including marine protected areas;
  • environmental impact assessments (EIA); and
  • capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology (CB&TMT).

IMO has been present in all the negotiations on the topic and has been actively cooperating with the United Nations, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), and other specialized agencies like The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC) of UNESCO and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

IMO officials have outlined their experience in developing universal binding regulations for international shipping to ensure the sustainable use of the oceans by the maritime industry, through several globally-binding treaties.

Ships plying their trade across the world’s oceans are subject to stringent environmental, safety, and security rules, which apply throughout their voyage and IMO regulations are enforced through a well-established system of the flag, coastal, and port State control.

Many of its measures contribute to the conservation of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution by ships (MARPOL) and the International Ballast Water Management Convention which aims to prevent the transfer of potentially invasive aquatic species – as well as the London Convention and Protocol regulating the dumping of wastes at sea.

IMO has adopted numerous protective measures, which all ships must adhere to, both in and outside designated sensitive sea areas (PSSAs) and in special areas and emission control areas.

These include strict rules on operational discharges as well as areas to be avoided and other ship routing systems, including those aimed at keeping shipping away from whales’ breeding grounds. IMO’s Polar Code is mandatory for ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic. IMO has also issued guidance on protecting marine life from underwater ship noise.

Relationship between UNCLOS and BBNJ

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982 and it lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources.

It embodies in one instrument traditional rules for the uses of the oceans and at the same time introduces new legal concepts and regimes and addresses new concerns. The Convention also provides the framework for further development of specific areas of the law of the sea.

The United Nations General Assembly decided, in 2015, to develop an international legally binding instrument under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (UNGA resolution 69/292).

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