The Arctic Youth Network Oceans Group (AYO) and the negotiations on the new instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (High Seas Treaty/United Nations Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdictions [BBNJ] negotiations).

Unfortunately, young people often don’t get a chance to engage in negotiation processes for international agreements and frameworks actively. But issues that have a considerable impact on all of us and future generations concern everyone. Especially regarding our oceans, which are intrinsically linked to our health and the health of the earth’s environment, the possibility for everyone to get engaged is vital to secure the adequate conservation of our (marine) environment. Our oceans produce over half of the world’s oxygen and absorb 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere. In addition, the oceans play a vital role in regulating the climate by transporting different water masses through the oceans. This provides a platform for transportation, recreation activities, resources for medicine, and, of course, is also an important food source. However, the importance of the oceans still lacks sufficient attention in the global regulation with a currently fragmented and complex framework. As a result, also youth engagement in international processes, which aim to tackle these issues, remains limited.

Figure 1. Spatial Scope of the High Seas (ILSS, 2021)

This was why Pétur Halldórsson, a founding member of the Arctic Youth Network, established the AYN Oceans Group. But he was not the only one passionate about ocean conservation and aiming towards increasing youth engagement in ocean conservation-related issues. Ventia Galanki, Tora Fougner-Økland, Mana Tugend, and Inga Baschnikova joined Pétur in his undertaking to establish the AYO. As such, they envisioned tackling current ocean-related topics and increasing youth engagement by gathering and providing comprehensive and coherent information for young people and everyone interested in ocean conservation. 

The United Nations negotiations on a new international legally binding instrument on the sustainable use and conservation of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ Agreement/High Seas Treaty) are the first issue the AYO decided to work on. This treaty refers to the High Seas portions of our oceans, which remain largely unregulated, and adequate protection is still lacking (dark-blue colored space on the map). The High Seas lie beyond the jurisdiction of nations and constitute almost two-thirds of the world’s oceans and provide 90% of the habitat available for marine life, which ranges from the smallest to the biggest species across the entire ocean, including the deep seas. The High Seas are integral to the function of our planet as they provide oxygen and store carbon and heat. Also, its fish stocks are a valuable food source. Even though these spaces are an integral part of our lives, they and their biodiversity are not adequately protected. 

This was also recognized by the international community and as a result an ad-hoc open-ended informal working group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction was established and initiated the process in 2004 by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The negotiations have been underway ever since and are still in progress. The process was supposed to be finalized in 2019. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it got delayed considerably. In addition, the complexity and the scope of the issue gave ground for prolonged negotiations and discussion amongst the negotiation parties. The fourth session of the negotiations is now scheduled for the earliest date possible in 2022, which is also supposed to be the last and final substantial session to negotiate the treaty. However, several issues are still outstanding and require extensive discussion and negotiation between the states. It remains to be seen whether the instrument will be finalized with the last session and how the final provisions of the treaty will look like. 

Due to its importance, complexity, and the increased need to make information accessible, it was the perfect choice for the AYO to focus their work on. As such, the AYO has followed the process for the past year and a half to synthesize the information and make it more accessible for youth.

With a call for applications, many young researchers, students, and interested people joined the AYO. We studied the “forgotten half of the planet,” the High Seas, and the negotiation process of the new regulation for these areas by taking on various roles. One of the roles, for example, was the “Advisors,” who provided knowledge on ocean conservation and ecosystems, international negotiations, or national politics. The information is then forwarded to the “Scribes and Authors” team, creating summaries and other material documents. The close cooperation between the teams led to a merger of both teams, and the so-called “Recon” team was born. The process was always supported by the “Facilitators,” that are at the same time the founders of the AYO. Their support made sure that everyone felt comfortable and heard within the process and kept us in within our deadlines, if necessary. At times, the collection and processing of these sometimes very complex issues within the BBNJ negotiations kept us very busy. However, our main commonality, the passion for ocean conservation, motivated our work. And even though the work was done exclusively online due to the pandemic and most of us never have met in person before, fun was always guaranteed during our meetings. Soon it felt like being part of a group of friends, especially as we all share a passion for the oceans and their conservation. 

Composition of AYN’s Arctic Youth Oceans Working Group (AYO)

Additionally, we had an exciting goal ahead of us. A joint session with the High Seas Alliance at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Global Youth Summit was scheduled for April 2021. Initiated by the facilitators, we got a chance to participate in various ways at the Summit, share our expertise, and gain knowledge on the BBNJ negotiations and their current issues.  

In preparation for our session at the Summit, a member of the graphic designers of the AYO supported us to create a presentation and look for our group and the information we compiled. The Summit was our first official and international appearance as the AYO and the first possibility to share our knowledge with young people from all over the world with an interest in ocean conservation. It was a great platform to connect with more like-minded people and launch our organization, create awareness for the need to protect the marine environment, also in spaces beyond nations’ focus and regime, and present our work on youth engagement relating to ocean issues. During the session, we introduced the AYO and summarized the gathered information on the BBNJ. We further spoke about the parties’ difficulties during the negotiations. We drew on the importance of resolving these issues to ensure an adequate and sufficient treaty for protecting marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. 

If you have missed the IUCN Global Youth Summit and our session “The forgotten Half of the Planet: Empowering Youth in High Seas Governance,” together with the High Seas Alliance, don’t worry. The sessions were recorded and published online after the Summit and can be accessed and viewed at any time. This also provides the perfect opportunity to fully catch up with the work the AYO has done so far and, of course, on the current negotiations of the High Seas Treaty. 

After the Summit, the AYO team continued to follow and will continue to follow the High Seas Treaty negotiations, which are still not concluded. Furthermore, the website of the AYO has been built in the last couple of months. After an exciting first year for the AYO, everyone is excited to enter the second phase, as AYO 2.0, by continuing to work on ocean issues and following up with current proceedings regarding the BBNJ negotiations. In addition to that, the AYO is planning to focus on other important topics relating to protecting marine spaces and their biodiversity.

If you are interested in youth engagement, working in, and studying the Arctic, and/or passionate about ocean conservation, there are many ways to get engaged within the Arctic Youth Network. Check out our brand-new website, and make sure to keep an eye on updates and for further events. You can be sure that you will see us around at online and/or in-person events covering the conservation of the oceans and marine environment.

About the Author: Katharina Heinrich

Katharina Heinrich is the Team Lead of the Arctic Youth Network’s Ocean’s Working Group. She is a Junior Researcher at the Arctic Governance Research Group of the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland and is based in Rovaniemi, Finland. She holds a Master´s degree in Polar Law (M.A) from the University of Akureyri, Iceland. In addition to that, she is pursuing a master’s degree in coastal and marine management from the University Centre of the Westfjords, Iceland.

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