© Natur og Ungdom/Jørgen Karlsen

Youth want a say: Protecting biodiversity in the high seas

1 February 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sea Change: Managing the Arctic Ocean. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s ocean lies beyond any country’s national jurisdiction. Although there are rules that restrict the use of resources in these “high seas”—including for fishing, shipping and mining—the pressures on marine biodiversity are increasing. The UN treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in these areas, known as Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), aims to address this. The proposed amendment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would fill a number of gaps in the international legal framework governing the biodiversity of the world’s high seas—including those in the Arctic.

A group of youth from across the Arctic have joined forces to make sure the treaty gets the attention it deserves. Through the Arctic Youth Network, they have created the Working Group for Oceans. Tora Fougner-Økland, 23, is one of the group’s founding members. She spoke to The Circle about why she thinks it is important that youth across the Arctic work to protect the region’s marine biodiversity.

What was it about the BBNJ that made you want to form the Working Group for Oceans?

I was very surprised to find that the BBNJ was the first agreement to lay out a plan for conserving huge areas of the world’s oceans. I think it is important because it’s the first time these countries have come together to form an agreement for how we’re going to take care of these huge ocean areas. And this agreement will affect such a huge area of the Earth’s surface—it’s a mind-boggling amount of space that hasn’t really been included in conservation before. There might be a lot of caveats in the final agreement, but it’s still a really important step because it acknowledges that this area also deserves protection.

Why do you think the Arctic’s marine areas need protection?

I’m not a marine biologist, but we know that what happens in the Arctic affects the rest of the world’s oceans, particularly the Atlantic. It’s also a very vulnerable area. As far as I’ve understood it, the BBNJ itself won’t directly affect a significant part of the Arctic, because most of it has already been claimed. But when you’re talking about ocean conservation, everything is interconnected, and I think that’s important to remember. I hope this group becomes a kind of starting point to discuss ocean conservation more generally, not just in regard to the BBNJ. I think it can provide a framework to talk about why we are doing ocean conservation in the first place and how can we do it, especially in the areas that aren’t affected by this agreement—because we need to advocate for those places as well.

Why is it important for countries to work together to protect marine biodiversity?

I worked a lot with fisheries policies in Norway this past year. Strong cooperation and regulation have put us in a much better situation there. For example, because of a lack of cooperation across borders in the past, there were hardly any cod left in Norwegian waters 30 years ago. But in just 20 years, we’ve actually managed to bring stocks back.

Why do you think it’s important for Arctic youth to get involved and pay attention to the BBNJ?

If you take it to the most extreme, it’s about fighting to preserve your way of life. We know the Arctic is an environment that’s changing quickly. We need to work hard to preserve what we have while we still can. For large parts of the Arctic—certainly the Arctic parts of Norway—marine biodiversity is important to our way of life. What we get from the ocean is to a large extent what fuels our coastal communities.

What do you hope to achieve by getting this ocean group together?

I hope we can bring these big, longworded agreements down to a level where people can engage with them and understand what they will mean for them and their communities. Maybe young people could even try to influence the process by, for example, getting in touch with their politicians and saying what they want from them. But most importantly, I think being aware of a process like this and discussing how we want our actions to be managed is important for future conservation—so that it’s not just something that’s being decided by the diplomats now, but something that is understood by those who will take care of this in the future.

Do you feel like your voice is being heard?

Over the past year, that’s more or less what I’ve spent my time on. We get invited to meetings and we slam all the science down on the table and tell them what they should be doing. Unfortunately, they frequently do the opposite. For example, recently, the Norwegian government opened new blocks of the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling—further north than any scientist says is a good idea. So, I feel like politicians and people in power realize it looks good to invite youth to the table, but we’re not at the point where they’re actually listening to us yet.

Do you have hope that that’s going to change?

It has to change sooner or later. I mean, we have to have hope, right?