Emerging technologies that can remotely monitor the high seas will be crucial to enforce a proposed agreement to preserve the biological diversity of the world's oceans, researchers and activists said.
The diplomats met in September at the United Nations in New York to start negotiations on a legally binding treaty to protect ocean resources – with the goal of concluding an agreement by 2020.
Technologies like the blockchain – the technology of the distributed ledger that supports bitcoin currency – could help enforce the new treaty by tracking offshore fishing and identifying illegal behavior, said Dominic Waughray, head of the World for Economic Center for Global Public Goods.
"If you take the law of the sea, you absolutely need that picture and a negotiation, a set of principles, but how do you control it and apply it? Technology," he said, pointing to artificial intelligence as another way to monitor the oceans.
The proposed treaty would concern "the high seas", an area beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends from the coast of each country to the ocean, as established by the Convention of Nations United of 1982 on the law of the sea (UNCLOS).
On the high seas there are no universally recognized rules governing those who can fish where and how much – with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, estimated to cost $ 23.5 billion a year.
A testing effort by the WWF conservation group in the Pacific Pacific industry sees fishermen tag the fish with an analysable code that is loaded onto a blockchain ledger, so companies and customers can confirm the source of each tuna sold at a retailer.
This transparency will allow potential buyers to avoid illicit catches, said Waughray.
"Retailers recognize the need for clean and transparent supply chains," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
STATE PATCHWORK QUO
According to Waughray, "the governance of the oceans is the classic good challenge of the public".
"We know we need it for a healthy ocean, but because nobody has it … we have a real problem," he said.
Groups of countries have negotiated specific regulations for sections of international waters, such as the rules governing tuna fisheries in the Pacific or fish stocks in the Atlantic between Greenland and Europe.
But experts believe that the existing patchwork is inadequate to manage ecosystems in international waters.
"Many of these bodies have focused on the extraction of resources or how to share what is there," said Liz Karan, senior manager for the high seas at Pew Charitable Trusts, an organization without profit.
"The hope of this new treaty for the high seas is to protect biodiversity beyond national borders and close these gaps in governance," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Without a global agreement, the piecemeal approach has done little, said Karan.
For example, nearly 10 years after the North Atlantic island of Bermuda drove an effort to encourage collective management of the Sargasso Sea and protect its eel grasslands, there are no binding measures in place, he added.
The small nations of the Pacific islands are those that suffer the most from the existing system, said Karan, noting that the EEZs of countries like Kiribati, Nauru and Solomon Islands leave room for large international fishing vessels.
"These areas are heavily exploited by vast fishing fleets in distant waters that have a potential impact on domestic fishing in those countries," Karan said.
BLUE HELMETS AT SEA?
However, more technology may be needed to enforce the new rules, ocean experts said.
"Either extend the EEZ or form this treaty and control security from different countries, in turn, in which part of the sea they are going to regulate," said Daniela Fernandez, founder of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, a network of youth advocates for the sustainability of the ocean.
"We have U.N. peacekeeping missions on the ground, why do not we have them on the sea?" she said.
For close observers of the negotiations like Karan, however, such a proposal seems far-fetched.
"The resources (for peacekeeping by the oceans) would be immense and the countries that invested the most in the UK are walking backwards," Karan said.
"In the current geopolitical climate in which we find ourselves, I do not see a path that allows countries to accept blue helmets on water".