UNESCO explores ways to apply World Heritage Convention to ‘wonders’ of open ocean

3 August 2016

A United Nations-backed report launched today explores the different ways the international treaty governing the inscription of world heritage sites may one day apply to sunken coral islands, floating rainforests, or giant undersea volcanoes, none of which can be considered for listing because they are in the seas outside of any national jurisdiction.

Titled World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time has Come, the report – released by the World Heritage Centre of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – presents five sites that illustrate different ecosystems that can only be found in the depths of the ocean, according to a UNESCO news release.

Just as sites on land, such as the Grand Canyon in the United States, the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador or Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, “the deepest and most remote ocean harbors globally unique places that deserve recognition,” stated Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, in the preface to the report.

The five sites are: the Costa Rica Thermal Dome (Pacific Ocean), a unique oceanic oasis, which provides critical habitat for a thriving marine life, including many endangered species; the White Shark Café (Pacific Ocean), the only known gathering point for white sharks in the north Pacific; the Sargasso Sea (Atlantic Ocean), home to an iconic ecosystem built around a concentration of floating algae; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field (Atlantic Ocean), an 800 meter-deep area dominated by carbonate monoliths up to 60 meters high; and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island in the subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean.

Each of these sites could be recognized as having outstanding universal value, a key principle of the World Heritage Convention. Although these sites are far from shores, they are not safe from threats, whether it be climate change, deep seabed mining, navigation or plastic pollution. But for listing, adjustments to the inscription process will be necessary, since only countries can propose sites and the high seas, which cover half the planet, do not fall under the jurisdiction of any country.

“The High Seas have outstanding value on the global scale, yet they have little protection,” said Dan Laffoley, Principal Advisor on Marine Science and Conservation for IUCN and co-author of the report. “These areas are exposed to threats such as pollution and over-fishing. It is therefore crucial to mobilize the international community to ensure their long-term conservation,” he added.


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