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Student Q&A: Johanna Vonderhorst on Strengthening Protections for High Seas

Monmouth University student Johanna Vonderhorst recently completed a paper titled “Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction: A Need to Improve Governing Frameworks and Enhance a Global Commitment to Conservation” as part of her work as a spring intern at the Global Ocean Forum (GOF). In it, Vonderhorst contends that the high seas “are home to a wealth of ocean resources that are taken for granted” and deserve greater legal protections.

The internship gave Vonderhorst, a NOAA Hollings Scholar and former UCI research assistant, the opportunity to earn university credits while conducting external research on ocean policy. The senior majoring in chemistry and political science plans to continue her internship with the GOF in the fall. Read below to learn more about the issues explored in her paper.

Q: Your paper focuses on the need for greater protections for Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ) – typically deep-sea zones that fall outside of the governance of any national entities. Why are these areas so important and what are some of the threats they face?

ABNJ are extremely important not only because they house major fisheries that feed millions worldwide, but also because they provide shipping and transportation routes, seabed for laying telephone cables, and resources used in medicine and scientific research. They also provide vital ecosystem services, acting as carbon sinks to regulate climate change impacts and generating over half of the world’s oxygen. Some of the biggest threats to ABNJ are overfishing, resource overexploitation, plastic and oil pollution, and climate change, which exacerbates all other threats to the health of ABNJ.

Q: You highlight some of the international frameworks that have been initiated to guide human activities in ABNJ, notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which calls for nations to cooperate on issues such as the exploitation of marine resources and the management of fisheries. Why do you believe UNCLOS and other existing initiatives are inadequate?

UNCLOS and other regulatory frameworks are inadequate primarily because they provide no mechanism for global enforcement and create no international entity to punish violators of their terms. UNCLOS is also anthropocentric, advocating for preservation of marine resources in ABNJ only to the extent that it benefits humans and not for the sake of the environment in its own right. Additionally, under UNCLOS, each member state is responsible for gathering its own scientific information regarding the condition of fisheries and other ABNJ resources and for creating and implementing policies in line with its findings and the terms of UNCLOS, resulting in fragmented governance.

Q: What steps do you think should be taken for the international community to better address the challenges for ABNJ?

A new framework under UNCLOS is currently being negotiated to improve cross-sectoral and transnational communication and build equivalent scientific capacity and information-sharing networks among party states, and this is a great place to start. The creation of an international enforcement body under this new framework would also be an important step forward. Increased support and funding for initiatives like the Deep Seas Project and the Common Oceans ABNJ Project, as well as regional projects such as the Global Ocean Forum’s efforts to enhance capacity-building and cross-sectoral communication, would also be beneficial.