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Nicholas School researcher on why UN treaty doesn't preserve aquatic biodiversity

The Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke has been researching biodiversity for more than a decade. One of the lab’s researchers—Guillermo Crespo—was the lead author on a study that discovered the current wording of a United Nations treaty would protect less than 5% of fish species in international waters. The Chronicle spoke with Crespo, a Ph.D. candidate in the Nicholas School of the Environment, about why the treaty falls short and his research with the lab at Duke. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Can you briefly explain the background behind this U.N. High-Seas treaty? 

Guillermo Crespo: So, it’s complex. Back in the early ‘80’s, the U.N., after two failed attempts of drafting this document, was able to come together and draft a convention called the U.N. Law of the Sea. This convention is known colloquially as the Constitution for the Sea. It was a set of guidelines which included international rules on how scientific data could be collected from the oceans, how countries could fish and how they could engage in shipping activities. But there were no provisions to manage biodiversity. 

The objective was to come together, the process having started in the early 2000s. Eleven years later, in 2015, the U.N. General Assembly finally decided to establish a two-year commission to brainstorm about what a new treaty to address biodiversity would look like. Now we’ve entered what is known as the IGC, Intergovernmental Conference, which is going to be at least a two-year process where the U.N. is putting the text together for this treaty.

TC: This treaty hopes to expand on how biodiversity is monitored internationally. What are the flaws with the treaty so far?

GC: The issue that we’re addressing is, before the negotiations started, countries said that the new treaty should not undermine other agreements that the U.N. has passed before. A couple of fishing countries and the fisheries organizations that were established in the ‘80s and ‘90s came forward and said that, since there are already instruments in place to handle fisheries, this treaty should not handle fish. 

From my point of view, these current instruments haven’t been doing a good job of protecting biodiversity. There’s a difference between managing fish stocks that are commercially harvested and managing biodiversity as a whole. 

TC: You say in your paper that 5% of the fish in the ocean fall under current fisheries management. Do the other 95% of fish have the potential to fall under this new treaty’s protection or are they also restricted commercial species?

GC: Right now, we’ve documented about 4,000 species of fish in the ocean, commercial or non-commercial, and some fishing nations are saying that the existing instruments are already managing all fish. The existing instruments are managing just under 5% of those 4,000 total fish species. This is because those 5% are the commercial fish, tunas, mackerels, the stuff that we eat. 

The remaining 95% of fish biodiversity is not being monitored. It may be getting caught accidentally. It may be declining because of climate change, but we don’t know because these roughly 3,800 species are not of commercial interest. No one is monitoring them because they’re not profitable, but these fishing organizations and countries are saying no, no, no, they’re fish, and so the treaty can’t deal with them. They’re saying that the treaty should deal with all biodiversity except for fish. 

So what we’re saying with our article is that 5% of the species out there are being managed, 95% aren’t by anyone. Who’s going to deal with it? If these existing instruments are not willing to do it, the least they could do is not veto these 3,800 species from being looked after by another treaty. I think it’s irresponsible, and I think it’s immoral. 

TC: Do you prefer that the current fisheries systems that handle fish take up that additional 95% of species, or do you think this treaty would be better equipped to protect them? 

GC: These organizations are never going to be able to monitor all species. They don’t have the resources, they’re understaffed and they’re not biodiversity scientists—they’re fisheries scientists. I think that, and what we propose in the paper, is for these organizations to very clearly define what species they’re going to manage, and they’ll have full mandate over those species. Any species that they’re not capable or willing to monitor should fall under the new treaty. This treaty is a good opportunity to deal with those disenfranchised species groups that may be declining under climate change. 

TC: Are there any points that were missed that you wanted to touch on, or wanted the public to know about?

GC: We are experiencing a biodiversity crisis. Although the high seas are far, they are connected to our livelihoods and to our wellbeing, and Duke is at the forefront of this discussion. But if the public, industries and governments don’t care, I don’t think the delegates in the room of certain countries will feel the pressure. This treaty will be around for decades, so we better get it right. The public has to care. So if this type of interview, this type of article, can bring more attention from civil society, that’s something that we need desperately. There are definitely things that I want Duke University to know in terms of the work that we do. We should be proud, not just of our lab, but with what Duke has been accomplishing. 

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