How is the Law of the Sea coping with new ocean resources?

Author:Scovazzi, Tullio
Position:International Law in a Multipolar World

This panel was convened at 1:30 pm, Thursday, April 4, by its moderator, Maria Gavouneli of the University of Athens, who introduced the panelists: David Balton of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries, U.S. State Department; Kristina Maria Gjerde of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; Michael Lodge of the International Seabed Authority; and Tullio Scovazzi of the University of Milano-Bicocca. *


By Tullio Scovazzi ([dagger])

New challenges are facing states as regards genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The deep seabed is not a desert, despite extreme conditions of bitter cold, utter darkness, and intense pressure. It is the habitat of diverse forms of life associated with typical features such as hydrothermal vents, cold water seeps, seamounts, and deep-water coral reefs. In particular, the deep seabed supports biological communities that present unique genetic characteristics. For instance, some animal communities live in the complete absence of sunlight where warm water gushes from tectonically active areas (so-called hydrothermal vents). Several species of microorganisms, fish, crustaceans, polychaetes, echinoderms, coelenterates, and mollusks have been found in hydrothermal vent areas. Many of them are new to science. These communities, which do not depend on photosynthesis for their survival, rely instead on chemosynthesis--the ability of specially adapted micro-organisms to synthesize organic compounds from the hydrothermal fluid of the vents. The ability of some deep-seabed organisms to survive extreme temperatures (thermophiles and hyperthermofiles), high pressure (barophiles), and other extreme conditions (extremophiles) makes their genes of great interest to science and industry.

While prospects remain uncertain for commercial mining in the deep seabed falling under the innovative regime of "the common heritage of mankind" (the Area), (1) the exploitation of commercially valuable genetic resources may soon become a promising activity taking place beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. However, only a few states and private entities have access to the financial means and sophisticated technologies needed to reach the deep seabed.

But which international regime applies to genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction? In fact, neither the UNCLOS nor the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) provides any specific legal framework in this regard.

In 2006 the subject of the international regime for the genetic resources in the deep seabed was discussed within the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Informal Working Group to Study Issues Relating to the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction (the Working Group). (2) Opposing views were put forward by the states concerned. Some states took the position that the UNCLOS principle of the common heritage of mankind and...

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