A further point of criticism is that so far, the ISA has not ex-tended protected status to any valuable seabed habitats outside the licence areas, despite the fact that as the Authority estab-lished and legitimized by UNCLOS, it is ideally placed to do so. At present, designating marine protected areas in the high seas is extremely complicated due to the plethora of organizations involved. What’s more, some protection regimes relate solely to specific marine fauna, particularly fish, in the water column, while others focus exclusively on the conservation of biotic communities on the seabed.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO), for example, can designate Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs) in which shipping is restricted or prohibited, e.g. to protect important fishing grounds, whale breeding areas, or areas of archaeological significance. One example is the Great Barrier Reef along the coast of northeast Australia. The possibility of extending PSSA status to the Sargasso Sea in the western Atlantic is also under discussion in IMO circles at present. The Sargasso Sea hosts vast amounts of the macroalgae Sargassum, masses of which float on the surface of the water and provide an important habitat for many marine fauna. However, Particularly Sensitive Sea Area status merely restricts commercial shipping by regulating transit through the area.
In other regions, fishing may be restricted in marine protected areas (MPAs). Such areas have been proposed under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention), a regional marine protection agreement which has been signed and ratified by a number of Western and Northern European countries. The fisheries management organization responsible for the Northeast Atlantic has taken account of the OSPAR Convention and has closed most areas of the Northeast Atlantic to bottom trawling.
These examples show just how complex a task it is to design-ate protected areas, which, in any case, only protect individual areas of the sea. Making matters worse, the regulations pertain-ing to protected areas are only binding on the few states which have signed up to the relevant agreement. Other states can simply ignore the regulations. What is needed, therefore, is a gen-eral obligation to protect habitats in their entirety from seabed to surface. In practice, however, no such arrangements exist. In the areas covered by the OSPAR Convention in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, only bottom trawling is currently prohibited. To establish a comprehensive protection regime, it would be helpful if the ISA were to recognise these MPAs and extend protected area status to the seabed in these regions. This would protect seamounts and banks not only from bottom trawling but also from mining interests in future. At present, however, the ISA cannot recognise these areas because its jurisdiction extends solely to seabed mining. In order to protect valuable marine areas in international waters, an implementing agreement to UNCLOS for the conservation of marine biodiversity would have to be adopted first of all. A United Nations working group has been preparing such an agreement for some years, but it is proving to be a slow process.
This is almost inexcusable, for a comprehensive protection regime for valuable marine areas has been demanded at the highest level for many years. Back in 1992, for example, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), whose objective is the conservation of biological diversity in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems throughout the world. Recent decisions adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) call for the establishment of marine protected areas in marine areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, and for ecologically or biologically significant marine areas (EBSAs) in need of protection to be identified.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012 therefore urged the international community to bring the ongoing process to develop an implementing agreement to UNCLOS on the conservation of marine biodiversity to a swift conclusion. At present, however, the instruments available under UNCLOS and, indeed, to the ISA for the designation of marine protected areas are very limited. The ISA cannot design-ate any marine protected areas outside marine mining areas, nor can it recognize such areas. In view of the great pressure on seabed habitats, it is unacceptable that the preparation of the implementing agreement is taking so long.
The OSPAR Commission has observer status in the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority and is negotiating with this and other maritime organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), on the establishment of comprehensive marine protection regimes in the near future. A key prerequisite, however, is the adoption of an implementing agreement to UNCLOS on the conservation of marine biodiversity, in order to provide general protection for biological diversity in fragile habitats.