The White Shark Café—a remote patch of ocean halfway between the West Coast and Hawaii, where sharks come to feed and mate—is unlike any other place on Earth. In the Atlantic, the Sargasso Sea, called the “golden floating rainforest of the ocean,” is also ecologically unique. In the Indian Ocean, there’s a sunken fossil island called the Atlantis Bank, home to armchair-sized sponges and former beaches turned to stone.
Most people have never heard of any of these places–or the fact that each of them is under threat. Now the World Heritage Center, the body that recognizes places like Angkor Wat and the Grand Canyon as World Heritage sites, wants to start giving the same protection to special locales in the high seas.
“We call it ‘world heritage’ but when you really think it through, it only covers half of our planet,” says Fanny Douvere, coordinator of the marine program at UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris. “Over 50%, which is beyond national jurisdiction, is not covered by the convention.”
Part of the problem may be how little people know about the ocean, so there’s been less motivation to protect extraordinary places there. “I think many people in the world think these are just empty spaces where nothing happens,” says Douvere. “As an international community, we’re already losing a truly unique part of our legacy of humanity that we don’t even know that we have.”
The middle of the ocean is outside the jurisdiction of specific countries, and in the past, World Heritage sites have always been nominated and maintained by countries. But there’s nothing in the convention that excludes the high seas; Douvere points out that international coalitions have worked together to protect sites such as temples in Egypt. Places like the Atlantis Bank easily meet the organization’s list of criteria for what makes a place have “universal value.”
Without the World Heritage Convention, there may be no other way to protect these places. The UN is in the early stages of negotiating updates to its “Law of the Sea” convention that could protect the environment. But right now, the deep oceans are essentially a lawless place.
“We often still call it the last frontier, and that’s because anybody who has the means and capabilities can go to these areas and exploit them,” says Douvere. “There’s nothing that really prevents that today.”
In a new report, the organization makes the case for beginning to add high sea sites to the list. Each of the examples they list–and the unique species found there–are at risk from threats such as overfishing, climate change, and ocean plastic.
“We came to the conclusion that the fact that the [convention] is not applied to the high seas is a historical oversight that should be corrected,” says Douvere. “Our next step is to look more closely at how it could happen.”
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