Protection of high seas is crucial to safeguarding vulnerable coastal communities

by Essam Yassin Mohammed | International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Monday, 25 March 2019 10:57 GMT

FILE PHOTO: An Eritrean man walks alongside the Red Sea port of Massawa, 150km from the capital of Asmara, October 25, 2003.

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The health of the high seas impacts the livelihoods and safety of vulnerable coastal communities in least developed countries

This week, United Nations members begin the second round of negotiations to decide how to govern the high seas.  

This is not only vital for protecting the health of the seas, it is fundamental to guaranteeing the livelihoods of millions of women, children and men in vulnerable coastal communities.

Despite the common view that the high seas are too remote to matter to people living in these areas, in reality they are crucial for employment, food supply and income opportunities. They are also fundamental for the life cycles, development and migration of marine life such as fish.

Developments in technology now mean that areas of ocean previously beyond human reach are increasingly accessible to mining, industrial fishing, shipping, geo-engineering experiments and pollution, including from plastic. Many areas are already being badly damaged by these activities.

New research from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC) clearly shows that despite being more than 200 nautical miles from coastlines, people in poor coastal communities are directly affected by activities that take place far off their coasts – beyond their national boundaries.

The science clearly shows that because of ocean connectivity, it does not matter how far an area of ocean is from coastlines for it to be significant to people’s lives.


According to the research, key areas such as the central Indian Ocean (the Mascarene Plateau beyond national jurisdiction), the northern Bay of Bengal and the ‘high seas pockets’ of the Pacific Islands, are particularly crucial to the livelihoods of vulnerable coastal communities in least developed countries and should be designated protected areas.

Kiribati, Liberia, Somalia and Tanzania’s coasts, are the developing countries that are most strongly connected to areas beyond national jurisdiction.  While 60 percent of Somalia’s coast is exposed to waters that originated in the international high seas due to ocean connectivity.

And where my own country Eritrea is concerned, the science shows its Red Sea coastal waters are inextricably connected to the high seas in the Indian Ocean and all that happens within it.

At this early stage, the U.N. talks have an opportunity to foster agreement and to recognise the significance of ocean connectivity and make sure the key areas of the high seas that impact populated coasts, in particular, are protected.

It is also important that the new treaty, when determining the criteria for designating an area for ocean protection and environmental and social impact assessments, prioritizes vulnerable people’s needs as well as ecological and biological concerns.

Any activity that is likely to affect coastal communities because of the ocean’s circulation and migration must be given special protection and be subject to environmental impact assessments.

Now is the time to address the threats facing the high seas and make sure it is protected for all.

Dr Essam Yassin Mohammed is the State of Eritrea's representative in the BBNJ negotiations and head of blue economy at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).