UN aims to protect ‘Klondike’ of DNA and other marine resources

Fishing, deep-sea mining and patenting the genes of marine life could soon be subject to new international regulations. John Dyer reports.

Diplomats kicked off negotiations at the United Nations Intergovernmental Conference on Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity in New York this month, which they hope will result in a new treaty to protect marine life and natural resources by 2020.

“The conference represents an opportunity to make a difference in the way the world manages the oceans, a chance to undertake a course correction, if you like, while we still can,” said Rena Lee, a Singaporean, president of the Conference, in her opening remarks.

No worldwide set of rules to govern the oceans

Numerous treaties – like the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling – exist to protect specific sea life and other resources on the high seas, or the two thirds of the ocean not in a national boundary. But, in general, no worldwide set of rules govern them.

“It’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” said Heike Dierbach, media coordinator for Greenpeace Germany, in a statement. “Currently, the global oceans beyond national borders, also known as the high seas, which cover about two thirds of the blue on our planet, are almost completely unprotected.”

Problems with marine DNA patenting

Among the most contentious issues under review is the regulation of marine DNA patenting, a market that the Financial Times estimates would reach $6.4 billion in 2025.

The Convention on Biological Diversity and other agreements protect gene sequences on sovereign territory, but sovereignty lapses more than 320 kilometres offshore.

That leaves a lot of space on the planet, which has been described as a “Klondike” of biological resources, an allusion to the fields that triggered the Canadian gold rush of the 19th Century.

Rift between developed and developing nations

A rift has developed between developed and developing nations over that market.

Developing nations that do not necessarily have the resources to exploit deep-sea resources are pushing to make them available to everyone. They have proposed allowing companies to ‘bio prospect’ in the oceans but compel them to make gene sequences public.

“We must work constructively to achieve a robust and universally acceptable agreement to guarantee the health of the oceans and a future for us all,” said a Cameroonian delegate at the meeting, according to a UN press release.

Representatives of wealthier countries like the United States, Russia and Japan, in contrary, are sceptical of efforts that would undercut the profit motives of companies that invest dearly in harvesting the deep seas in hopes of generating revenues someday

13,000 marine DNA patents in BASF hands

Currently, for example, German chemical giant BASF owns around half of 13,000 patents on the genetic sequences from marine organisms. Many of those sequences were public knowledge, but BASF secured ownership of them, according to Stockholm University Marine researcher Robert Blasiak, an expert in ocean management researcher.

“There’s nothing illegal about what they did,” said Blasiak, adding that BASF has sparked a conversation about how to regulate the use of marine DNA that might lead to new pharmaceuticals and other products, in an interview with Science magazine.

Blasiak warned of imposing rules that stifle innovation or have a negative impact on non-commercial science research.

Protecting animals during their migratory journeys

Scientists are already trying to catalogue when marine life enters and exits sovereign and deep-sea waters.

Autumn-Lynn Harrison, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the US, recently published a study that showed how 14 predators, including blue whales, great white sharks and leatherback turtles, move through geopolitical boundaries of the Pacific Ocean.

She hopes her work will put pressure on the diplomats in New York to reach a consensus.

“Migratory marine animals spend most of their lives beneath the sea or high up in the air, so it’s hard to determine which countries they are in at certain times of the year and which countries are essential to their conservation,” Harrison said in a recent press release.

“Determining which stamps each of these species would have in their passports helps us understand which countries need to cooperate to ensure the animals are protected during the most important parts of their journey.”

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