Preserving the Precious: Marine Heritage and the High Seas

Photograph - UN Dispatch

Dr. Fanny Douvere is the Coordinator of the Marine Programme at the World Heritage Centre of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, France. She works to strengthen the capacity of Marine World Heritage site managers in preserving some of the most precious and valuable marine sites worldwide, as well as supporting governments in their efforts to identify new potential marine World Heritage sites around the globe. Sarah Novak spoke with Dr. Douvere to discuss her work; in particular, recent discussions concerning the protection of Marine Heritage areas in the High Seasareas of ocean beyond national jurisdictionand UNESCO’s upcoming work in this topical area.

How did you become involved with UNESCO and the Marine Heritage Programme?

Originally from Belgium, I completed my PhD there in Marine Spatial Planning with a focus on the North Sea. However, Belgium only has a marine area of about 3,000 square kilometres, which I felt was a little bit small. I applied for a grant to do an internship at UNESCO, which was now over ten years ago. I was first at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission here at UNESCO where I, along with a colleague from the United States, set up the Marine Spatial Planning Initiative. We developed a new framework for managing ocean activities so that ocean conservationsuch as the establishment of marine protected areascould work hand-in-hand with emerging ocean uses, such as wind farms. Then, in October 2009, I was offered the lead [position] of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Heritage Programme. It has now been six years since then.

How does the World Heritage Marine Programme decide which types of projects to take on, and how does the relationship with the World Heritage Committee work regarding these?

We have a very clear mandate set out by the World Heritage Committee, [a body] that comes together every year to make all decisions regarding World Heritages issues. The Marine Programme was established in 2005, when oceans were becoming increasingly important, and were rising on the international political agenda. The World Heritage Committee felt that some marine sites on the World Heritage list had particular issues; [facing] an increasing a number of threats requiring specific attention and expertise.

Our core mandate is to ensure that all marine sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List are well protected and have a sustainable management system in place. Today, there are 47 marine sites distributed across 36 countries. Our task is to coordinate with all who are implicated in this list, including organisations, to help them become involved with the conservation of these marine sites. We oversee whether or not governments protect the characteristics set out by the World Heritage list.

Every year we prepare dossiers for the World Heritage Committee. For example, we look at sites that are not doing well from a scientific standpoint and should therefore be included the List of World Heritage sites in Danger. We also have a lot of projects and initiatives focused on building capacity on particular sites in countries, working to help countries implement the decisions of World Heritage Committee with regard to the protection of these areas. Every year there are about ten to twelve marine sites that are evaluated by the World Heritage Committee. We prepare those draft decisions with our advisory bodies, and then help countries to implement them.

Which projects are the World Heritage Marine Programme currently working on, and what are some of your most significant upcoming projects?

One of the most visible projects this year has been the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where I served as the lead for UNESCO. Over the past three years, things have not been going so well there. In 2012 we visited that site, which led to a very substantial report and a set of recommendations to the government concerning recommended protection measures. Things went further downhill after this though, due to a lack of attention from the government. However, last year the Australian Government realised that this Great Barrier Reef area was close to becoming classified as endangered. For the past year, we have made a very substantial effort in talking to scientists, NGOs, and trying to get a real understanding of both the details of the issue and what is blocking the progress of the government in making decisions. We have also negotiated with the government to make sure that the most critical decisions are made. In this case we moved from a deteriorating situation to a situation where there is now an investment of over $200 million to improve the water quality of the reef, a key reason why so much of the coral there has died over past decades. This was a key success story for World Heritage conservation. We assisted the government with establishing a 35-year plan that has some very clear targets set at five year intervals concerning what should be established to secure the long-term conservation of the site. We achieved a total ban of dumping of dredge material in the World Heritage Area—an area about the size of Italynot an easy thing to establish.

Another example is in Belize, which has the second-largest coral reef system on the planet and is included on the endangered list. In 2009, over five years ago, little progress had been made there. There is a serious possibility that oil in the surrounding waters is, or will be, exploited, which is incompatible with World Heritage status. We have established an action plan with the government with four main targets which, if met, will [mean the site] becomes eligible for removal from the endangered list.

We have an initiative focused on bringing managers from the aforementioned 47 sites in 36 countries together every three years to chart together the future of marine world heritage. We aim to bring them in contact with one another and have them share best practices and solutions concerning marine heritage issues.

Finally, there is, of course, our work that we are doing in exploring whether the World Heritage Convention could be applied to protect areas of the High Seas.

On the note of the High Seas: their conservation presents some very different challenges to other maritime zones. You recently held a High Seas expert meeting on this topicwhat were the outcomes?

This was the first time that we have brought together top experts in maritime law from around the world—both in the World Heritage Convention and environmental legal policy, as well as those knowledgeable about potential World Heritage sites [in the High Seas]. The results of the meeting themselves are not available yet, and there is little that I can say at this moment as conclusions are, for the moment, still confidential.

There is basically no mechanism in the world right now which protects the High Seas. The High Seas cover over 50% of our planet and make up over 60% of our oceans, so represent a very substantial mass of water. They are also commonly referred to as the area with the largest amount of life on earth, mainly due to due to these areas’ volume and depth. In an area where nothing is protected, it is logical that those areas of potential outstanding universal value would get priority. That’s where the World Heritage Convention comes in.

An evaluation was carried out on our global strategy, which focused on determining whether the marine sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List remain a representable collection across different types of ecosystems; cultural and natural, for example. This evaluation happened in 2011, and a recommendation was made which asked state parties to the World Heritage Convention to look into possibilities of protecting places beyond national jurisdiction. There are, of course, a number of key questions there, as there are in any other initiative when it comes to the High Seas: one is how these sites will be nominated and protected, which was one of the key things that we discussed.

One of the interesting factors about these World Heritage sites is that they are very different from regular marine protected areas. A regular marine protected area comes under national or regional law, while a World Heritage Site is a marine protected area, we also require that it already has some kind of protection system which can indicate whether or not the values of the site can be maintained and preserved. The real difference is that a World Heritage Site is subject to our monitoring and evaluation mechanisms as embedded in the 1972 World Heritage Convention. [This includes] periodic reporting every six years, where the World Heritage Committee evaluates all of the sites. This is a recurring exercise where we look across all sites, [focusing] on the state of conservation of the site. If serious problems have arisen, then the World Heritage Committee can immediately raise this to attention and bring it to the Committee. All World Heritage Sites that are inscribed are subject to this oversight.

Establishing and creating that type of mechanism on the High Seas would be fantastic, but of course the World Heritage Convention does not currently apply there. We are exploring possibilities in this area, and the results of our work will be published next yearincluding the publication of the results from this expert meeting and the work we have been doing leading up to here. This presentation will be made to the World Heritage Committee in Istanbul, Turkey from the 10th to the 20th of July 2016.