During my six years at the head of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme, I have had the pleasure of visiting some of the wonders of our blue planet. From the pristine corals of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park to the shores of Banc d’Arguin and the Wadden Sea that support millions of shorebirds, and the labyrinth of mangroves in the Sundarbans, the World Heritage marine system is stunning in its reach and diversity. But there is one final frontier not yet protected by this international covenant: the High Seas.
The High Seas is the term used to describe the deep ocean that lies beyond national boundaries. This vast area covers more than half the globe. We have just begun to explore the High Seas, but scientists have already discovered some real marvels. Imagine a world with sunken fossilized islands covered in corals, giant undersea volcanoes that would dwarf the tallest mountains on land, and rock formations that resemble underwater cities. Some of these places are not even powered by the light of the sun, but by heat and energy emerging from the Earth.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of descending 200 metres deep at the edge of one of these High Seas wonders, the Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso is known for its rafts of Sargassum seaweed that provides food and shelter for a stunning array of sea life, from turtles to eels and birds. It is the only sea in the world without a coastline, bounded instead by ocean currents.
Although it is far from shore, the Sargasso is not safe from human impacts. The High Seas host a surprising amount of industrial activity, from deep sea mining to international shipping and commercial fishing. In fact, a recent study found that two thirds of High Seas fish stocks are already unsustainably fished. This vast area belongs to all of us, but we have struggled for decades to find an effective way to manage its protection.
That is why UNESCO partnered with IUCN to explore the potential to apply the World Heritage Convention to this last wild place. The World Heritage Convention was created to safeguard sites of natural or cultural significance for the benefit of all humankind. It unites nearly all nations on the planet behind a shared commitment to preserve the world’s outstanding heritage and ensures preservation is a responsibility shared across all peoples of the world.
Few other conservation mechanisms have a track record of over 40 years of monitoring and protecting sites of irreplaceable value.
It is difficult to imagine that the founders of the World Heritage Convention intended to exclude the open ocean that covers half the Earth. That is why we convened experts from all over the world to identify some of its most spectacular features and help explore ways the Convention might be used to protect them.
Earlier this month, we released the long awaited results of this research in a groundbreaking report: World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. The report looks at five sites with unique wildlife, geology and natural systems found nowhere else. “Outstanding universal value” is a core concept in World Heritage, and these places were considered because their significance transcends national boundaries.
In addition to the Sargasso Sea, the sites include the Costa Rica Thermal Dome, a Pacific Ocean oasis that supports blue whale, leatherback turtle and dolphins; the White Shark Café, 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.
My career at UNESCO has included many highlights. It is a privilege to work with so many dedicated conservation leaders, and to see the results of our collective work firsthand in places like the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System or Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines. But the release of this High Seas report was among my proudest days. The global ocean community is capable of tremendous progress when we work together, and this report charts a potential path forward to protect the treasures of our global ocean commons.
You can read the full report here, or take a virtual tour by video:
Curious to learn more about UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage? Take a look here.