Speech is silver – Science is gold: The Voice of Science within UN negotiations for the Ocean

The United Nations are currently negotiating a new Agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). This agreement seeks to regulate the access to and sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources (MGRs), to establish area-based management tools (ABMTs), including marine protected areas (MPAs) on the High Seas, to assess the impact of activities on the marine environment through environmental impact assessments (EIAs), and to strengthen marine scientific research and guarantee capacity building and technology transfer (CB&TT). The recently published article “The Voice of Science on Marine Biodiversity Negotiations: A systematic Literature review” by Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki and Alice Vadrot informs international ocean governance by untangling the complex BBNJ negotiations, highlighting the policy relevance of existing work, and facilitating links between science, policy, and practice.

Science and Knowledge on Marine Biodiversity Negotiations

Photo credits: Ines Alvarez on Unsplash

Oftentimes, it is expected that international policy-decisions are based on the “best available science and knowledge”,  especially when areas and resources at stake are “global commons” and belong to no one and everyone at the same time. This is the case with the ocean, where state governments are currently negotiating about the future of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. But what is meant by such “best available science and knowledge” remains undefined. Various stakeholders are valuing different forms of knowledge and grant science and knowledge of different powers regarding decision-making about activities on the High Seas. Most people agree that regulating the ocean should be based on sound knowledge, retrieved by scientific methods, and approved through peer-review of other scientists before publication. Increasingly, there are calls to integrate other forms of knowledge, including traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, and local knowledge of practitioners, civil society and the private sector.

The interdisciplinary and international team of the ERC project MARIPOLDATA researches the role of science in the BBNJ negotiations through a multi- and mixed-method approach, using event ethnography at the intergovernmental conferences to collect qualitative and quantitative data, as well as bibliometric data, combined with network analysis and oral history interviews. In this way, the team maps existing marine biodiversity research and identifies collaborations on the global scale, explores the different scientific capacities of state actors in the negotiations and studies the authority of existing intergovernmental organisations within the BBNJ regime complex, portrays differences in state positions regarding key BBNJ issues and looks at case studies of specific regions within the BBNJ context. One key pillar of the MARIPOLDATA project is researching how science and knowledge influence the treaty-making process and how science-policy interrelations can be improved at different policy-making stages.

In this regard, the recently published systematic literature review serves as an up-to-date summary and analysis of scientific publications on the BBNJ process, compiling main priority topics and recommendations from 140 multidisciplinary, geographically diverse publications. Our literature review focuses on the peer-reviewed scientific findings that scholars have published on the BBNJ process. To find out what the scientific community writes about the BBNJ Agreement, we were interested in the questions: Which issues are prioritized in BBNJ research and the academic debate? Which best practices were identified and discussed in the literature that can serve as guiding principles and approaches? And what is currently missing in the debate about the future regulatory framework to protect and sustainably use marine biodiversity?

At the moment, the ongoing BBNJ negotiations have been indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 measures around the globe. However, informal and semi-formal online discussions continue to take place, in the form of “High Seas Online Dialogue”, organized by certain state and non-state actors, and Intersessional Work – an online platform- organized by the UN Secretariat to keep the momentum and progress towards consensus.

The time is now to approach policy-makers with the most recent scientific findings on BBNJ. At the same time, final decisions about the future of the ocean and marine biodiversity have still not been made. Within this intersessional period, there is the opportunity for recent scientific findings on BBNJ to make their way to the policy-makers’ negotiating table, and – by being put into context – to be perceived as politically relevant to be taken into consideration when negotiating the next (final) BBNJ round. In this regard, our literature review serves as a tool to untangle the complex BBNJ issues for newcomers in the field. It gives an overview of all existing work on BBNJ since the early beginnings of the process and provides insights on the latest scientific findings relevant to BBNJ.

The wave of Scientific Literature published along the BBNJ pathway

Photo credits: Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

The BBNJ process started in 2006 with the first meetings of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group and transitioned into Preparatory Committee meetings, and finally, formal negotiations – the intergovernmental conferences, taking place in the New York UN Headquarters since 2018, which are supposed to end with the next upcoming IGC-4.

Throughout the BBNJ process, there have been many academic contributions regarding the process in the form of new scientific findings, case studies, geospatial analyses, and law reviews by authors from multiple disciplines, including oceanography, marine biology, conservation science, political science, and law. Publications on BBNJ issues and the number of new authors in this field have been growing throughout the process.

There is often little time to go through hundreds and hundreds of scientific publications, many of which are often only accessible with certain rights for academic journals and written in scientific jargon of the particular discipline. We, therefore, provide a timely overview of what is “out there” of findings, analyses, studies, and recommendations for the new agreement and critically reflect on this corpus of literature – a review intended for researchers from diverse academic disciplines in the natural and social sciences, policy-makers, and practitioners. The systematic literature review serves to capture all academic publications related to the BBNJ Treaty from the database “Web of Science,” complemented using the snowball method to include additional sources from reference lists of relevant publications[1]. The sample includes all publications referring to the BBNJ negotiations or directly relevant to the BBNJ process – since before the official start of BBNJ meetings in 2004 until 2020. More recently published articles were not analyzed in detail but mentioned in the discussion section of the review to ensure timeliness and policy-relevance for the upcoming – and planned to be last – intergovernmental conference. We observe a high increase in BBNJ publications in 2014 with a special issue on this topic, as well as a general growing BBNJ literature starting from the beginning of the Preparatory Committee in 2016. The analysis ends in May 2020, but there have been many contributions in the second half of 2020, which is expected to continue with ongoing BBNJ online discussions until the next conference and beyond.

Scientific Publications along the BBNJ Pathway

A large amount of the scientific literature we analyzed aims to directly inform the BBNJ agreement by identifying areas in need of protection, outlining consequences of certain activities on the marine environment, pointing to best practice examples and lessons learned from past experiences with international implementing agreements of UNCLOS, or other international and regional frameworks seeking to conserve or sustainably use marine species or genetic resources. Therefore, such a review is critically relevant to consider for researchers studying BBNJ, state representatives forming their positions in the negotiations, and non-state actors and civil society being involved in the process. The academic literature is valuable for scientists to make a connection to their research, serves as a knowledge base on BBNJ and is significant for policy-makers to make informed decisions about how to regulate, use and protect the marine environment for current and future generations, as well as for planet Earth in its own right.

The Voice of Science is calling

The review presents recommendations made in the scientific literature sample for each of the four package elements of the future treaty. It first examines the main challenges facing the current ocean governance framework identified in the literature and potential solutions offered by the package elements. Second, it provides for each of the BBNJ package elements: a) a compilation of scientific findings and identified priority areas, b) suggested guiding principles, approaches, and recommendations, c) references to existing law, d) best-practice examples and lessons learned and e) recommended institutional entities for implementation. Further, our review elaborates on overarching topics across package elements named by BBNJ authors, which need to be considered in the negotiations if objectives for conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity are to be met. These include ocean connectivity, the relationship between BBNJ and existing instruments, institutional design; the role of science in BBNJ; and digital technology.

Marine Genetic Resources (MGRs)

Under the existing ocean governance framework, set by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the water column of the High Seas is regulated under the “Freedom of the High Seas” principle, granting states the freedom to access and use these areas and resources under certain environmental standards. However, the seafloor in these areas is governed under the principle of the “common heritage of humankind”, guaranteeing all states an equal share of financial and other economic benefits derived from the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources. There is legal uncertainty about living marine resources, which resulted in an international debate about the regulation of their exploitation. As the access to marine genetic resources and the sharing of benefits resulting from their use (e.g. from the development of pharmaceutical products) for areas beyond national jurisdiction is not regulated under the current framework, there is a need to fill this gap with the new agreement. While the potential economic value of such MGRs remains uncertain, an increasing interest in these resources is identified in the BBNJ literature, sparking debates on the imbalance between developed and developing countries in undertaking marine research and using marine genetic resources for product development. One part of the BBNJ authors analyses and recommends ways to approach potential access and benefit-sharing systems for marine genetic resources under the new agreement, which we lay out in the literature review.

Area-based Management Tools (ABMTs),

including Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Scientists in the BBNJ literature point to the worsening state of marine biodiversity, calling into mind various harmful human activities, including climate change and other anthropogenic stressors, such as overfishing, destructive fishing practices, shipping, pollution and, the need for urgent action to reverse biodiversity loss. Within the sample of publications, valuable management recommendations can be found. Area-based management tools, including marine protected areas, are considered an important marine conservation tool by the BBNJ scientific community. As under the current ocean governance framework, there is no global responsible body for the establishment of ABMTs, including MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The BBNJ instrument offers the potential to fill this gap. Considering the ocean connectivity of various forms, recent BBNJ authors suggest new ways of thinking about area-based management tools, leaving options open to consider climate change and cumulative impacts, as well as dynamic management when designing such conservation and sustainable use tools. Marine areas, already identified as “ecologically or biologically significant” (EBSAs) could form the basis for the new establishment of High Seas ABMTs, including MPAs. Moreover, scientists identify areas in need of protection and recommend these sites for protected area establishment. An ecosystem-based approach and a representative network of MPAs are recommended for the BBNJ agreement.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)

Embedded in a strong legal framework, environmental impact assessments have the potential to predict, reduce and even prevent environmental harm. Within national jurisdiction, EIAs seem to be advanced; however, in areas beyond national jurisdiction, BBNJ authors see the potential for improvement. In the light of emerging activities in the marine environment, there is a need for a stronger framework to develop and implement EIAs in ABNJ, and a clear EIA process, taking climate change and cumulative impacts into account.

Capacity Building and Transfer of Marine Technology (CB&TT)

Areas beyond national jurisdiction are over 200 nautical miles (around 370 kilometres!) away from the coastlines. The deep seafloor lies several thousand meters below the ocean surface. It is obvious that to undertake marine research under these conditions, a high level of technology and equipment is necessary. Besides physical samples of MGRs, digital sequence data of these resources are of interest to research and industry. Currently, however, only a handful of countries from the Global North are undertaking exploration and exploitation of marine genetic resources and have the capacity to participate in the development of products. Academic literature on BBNJ discusses the imbalance between developed and developing countries in conducting marine research and developing products from MGRs and differences in the capacity to implement conservation measures and undertake monitoring, control and surveillance. The pillar of capacity building and transfer of marine technology is crucial to guarantee a just agreement and ensure effective implementation and enforcement.

Beyond the BBNJ package elements

Scientists from a range of disciplines writing on BBNJ issues agree: the ocean is one. Numerous interconnections have to be accounted for when discussing the exploitation of marine genetic resources, the establishment of marine protected areas and the assessment of environmental impacts. BBNJ authors explain different forms of ocean connectivity and its relevance to the BBNJ negotiations. Human activities can significantly harm marine species and whole ecosystems, but listening to science could prevent major harm. While the BBNJ scientific community is diverse, scientists consensually agree that the marine environment needs to be dealt with in precaution and be managed holistically, as a connected system. This recognizes that activity in one place of the ocean (e.g. fishing in the water column) can negatively impact other parts where the link might not be immediately obvious (e.g. impacts on the marine biodiversity on the seafloor). Also, the ocean and the climate are interlinked, meaning that changes in the marine environment can be triggered by the climate and major variation in ocean cycles can result in changes in the global climate.

Significant discussions in the literature regard how the new instrument will interplay with existing instruments and the composition of the new BBNJ instrument with its internal arrangements. The literature provides an explanation of the three institutional models that have been envisaged for BBNJ within existing mechanisms and organisations, namely Regional, Hybrid and Global and analyses specific examples of relationships between BBNJ and existing instruments. One part of the BBNJ authors provides analyses of possible institutional arrangements, including a Conference of the Parties (COP), a Scientific and Technical Body, a clearing-house mechanism (CHM), and a financial mechanism, as well as provide ideas for implementation and compliance of the agreement.

Science plays a crucial role in all BBNJ package elements. Knowledge on the ocean and its ecosystems is necessary to understand the world’s ecosystems and use the ocean’s resources for product development in the pharmaceutical, biofuel, and chemical industries and to protect marine biodiversity. Some BBNJ authors emphasize the need for scientific cooperation in BBNJ, coupled with capacity building and marine technology transfer. There seems to be a general agreement that science is needed in the decision-making process. Still, there is no universal definition of the knowledge forms and no consensus on what tasks and powers would be appropriate for a scientific and technical body. Some BBNJ authors provide best practice examples and lessons learnt from existing science-policy interfaces in ocean governance institutions.

Another part of the BBNJ literature regards the overarching theme “digital technology”. It is identified as important to develop products from MGRs using digital sequence data. Moreover, it also contributes to the conservation of species through understanding migratory routes. Satellite data can support the identification of mobile MPAs, as suggested recently by some BBNJ authors.

Furthermore, monitoring, control and surveillance measures can significantly be improved through automatic identification system (AIS) which uses satellites to transmit real-time data of fishing vessels’ location. Such technology is particularly helpful in ABNJ, as these areas are largely remote and not easily accessible for physical monitoring. The NGO Global Fishing Watch is using such technology to track global fishing activities in real-time.

Photo credits: Global Fishing Watch

Will BBNJ blow a wind of change against the stormy sea?

As responsible policy-makers, researchers, civil society actors and parts of the private sector- with this knowledge – we can no longer continue the “business as usual” but need to be open to alternative forms of living in harmony with nature. Based on the review, we identify two important gaps in the BBNJ literature that need to be addressed if we are to conserve marine biodiversity in international waters: the science-policy interfaces and the need for transformative change.

The need to consider science in the ongoing BBNJ negotiations to conserve and sustainably use the ocean effectively does not seem to be disputed by many, however, how such interaction between science and policy takes place is not sufficiently studied. Ways through which science and knowledge reach policy-makers and under what conditions such findings impact the negotiations are yet to be identified. Formalized processes are required to guide the integration of science and other forms of knowledge, including local and traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Moreover, an independent expert body for BBNJ, which is currently discussed at the BBNJ negotiations, is necessary to implement the treaty’s targets successfully.

Need for transformative change

To understand the roots of the anthropogenic threats to the ocean, social, political and economic factors need to be considered. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recognized that biodiversity loss could only be reversed by introducing transformative change into our societies. Such debate is not (yet?) visible in the BBNJ context, but is important to reflect on when seeking to conserve and sustainably use the ocean. Existing economic, political and social structures have led to the dramatic state in which the ocean is now. Reversing such damage, thus, requires to re-think the “business as usual” and imagine alternatives.

There is a need to uncover the politics behind tensions in the negotiations, including competing environmental values and legitimate knowledge. In the light of negotiating global commons, we need to examine if the existing structures ensure adequate representation of the international community and consider the idea to represent future generations and nature in itself. With our critical view on the corpus of BBNJ literature and the identification of gaps, we encourage to develop ideas and ways forward – without taking the “business as usual” within existing political, economic and social boundaries as a given – and to think beyond such structures for creating new regulations for marine biodiversity that serves all of humanity and contributes to a healthy ocean for its own right.

Open Access to full article: Tessnow-von Wysocki, I. and Vadrot, A. 2020. The Voice of Science on Marine Biodiversity Negotiations: A Systematic Literature Review. Frontiers in Marine Science 7: 614282.

Past MARIPOLDATA blogs about the BBNJ negotiations:

Key findings from our study of the marine biodiversity field and why our data matters for the new BBNJ treaty by Alice Vadrot and Petro Tolochko, December 22, 2020

Slow progress in the third BBNJ meeting: Negotiations are moving – but sideways, by Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki on September 6, 2019

Setting the stage for the common heritage of humankind principle: Diving into further negotiations on a new marine biodiversity treaty, by Alice Vadrot, Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki and Arne Langlet on August 28, 2019

Impressions from the second week of BBNJ negotiations and why they became political in the end, by Alice Vadrot and Arne Langlet on April 15, 2019

Key findings from our study of the marine biodiversity field and why our data matters for the new BBNJ treaty

Governments are currently engaged in Online Intersessional work to keep the momentum for a new Treaty to protect marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). While online formats do not replace formal negotiations, they provide delegates with additional time to exchange their views on contentious and unresolved issues in the draft treaty text. Based on our observations of the Intergovernmental Conferences in 2019, we can confidently say that marine biodiversity research accounts for a critical conflict line between developed and developing countries. In the following, we will further develop this argument and introduce some findings and recommendations from our new paper “The Usual Suspects? Distribution of collaboration capital in marine biodiversity” recently published in Marine Policy.

Imbalances in Ocean Science as Key Issues of the new BBNJ Treaty

The unequal global distribution of ocean science, together with the lack of sufficient scientific and technological capacities to explore and exploit marine biodiversity in the global South, are repeatedly referred to as crucial issues that the new BBNJ Treaty should address. Firstly, to account for the idea that the protection of BBNJ is a common concern of humankind and that developing countries should be empowered to contribute to conservation measures (e.g. identification, designation, management, and monitoring of MPAs, contribution to EIAs) by their means. Secondly, to reduce global inequalities in exploring and exploiting “global commons”, by transferring the capacities and technological tools to use marine biodiversity in the High Seas to those that have historically been excluded from doing so.

Not surprisingly, under UNCLOS Article 242, “States and competent international organizations shall promote international cooperation in marine scientific research for peaceful purposes.” Acknowledging “rapid advances being made in the field of marine science and technology,” UNCLOS “urges the industrialized countries to assist the developing countries in the preparation and implementation of their marine science, [and] technology” (UNCLOS 1992, Annex 6). Thus, while scientists and governments seem to agree that scientific cooperation is needed to reduce global imbalances in marine science, progress in defining and assessing “the special interests and needs of developing countries” (UNCLOS Preamble) has been slow.

Studying global imbalances in the marine biodiversity field

It is against this background that MARIPOLDATA proposes looking at the BBNJ Treaty negotiations by combining ethnographic work at the negotiation site with bibliometric analyses of the marine biodiversity research field. The treaty negotiations – most notably concerning the package element “Capacity Building and Marine Technology Transfer” – demonstrate the need for careful analyses of the global distribution of ocean science and developing countries’ needs.

The article we recently published in Marine Policy is intended as a first step into an analysis of the Marine Biodiversity science field from a social science perspective. Since marine biodiversity has firmly established itself is a political dimension (e.g., Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) negotiations at the UN), it is in a relatively unique position in that it has the potential to matter and influence political decision making, thus making it a fascinating case study for political scientists. Our paper has introduced a new concept of “collaboration capital”, which is derived from a co-authorship network of countries engaged in the production of marine biodiversity scientific literature. This concept is inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘capital’ and views international scientific collaboration as a finite resource that countries can allocate to each other within a given time-frame.

Key findings

The main findings show that within the field of marine biodiversity the usual suspects (mainly the US and Europe) possess the vast majority of collaboration capital, with other regions allocating their share of collaboration capital to the US and Europe, often neglecting to foster intra-regional collaboration. More specifically, our data indicate that the marine biodiversity field shows the following properties:

  • Since the 1990s, interest in “Marine Biodiversity” as a scientific field has grown enormously (24,286 scientific publications)
  • Average annual growth rate of 15.77% compared to an average of 4.55% for the total WoS Core Collection repository
  • 91% of papers in the data set were co-authored by two or more researchers
  • 41% by researchers from two or more different countries
  • USA (52.5), Sweden (47), and Canada (43.9) are the top-cited countries
  • Brazil (with the largest scientific output in South America) averages only 9 citations per paper, on a par with Mexico (12.0) and Argentina (11.9).
  • China has a noticeably smaller paper citation rate among the rest of the group: 9 contrasted with the top 10 average, 39.6 (SD = 7.39)
  • The USA received most collaboration capital: consistently stays at the top with 54 largest proportional allocations in 1990–2009 and 83 in 2010–2018 timeframes.
  • South American, African, and Asian countries are generally focused either on the United States or European countries as their prime collaboration partners.

These dynamics leave the regions of the global South with an underdeveloped research network that may impact their positioning in the political arena, specifically, but not limited to, at the BBNJ negotiations.

Figure 1:Geographic distribution of the total amount of articles and average citation count by country, 1990–2018 (Source: Tolochko & Vadrot 2021)

Implications for BBNJ Treaty negotiations

The current study has implications for scientists and practitioners invested in the protection of the marine environment and the design of institutional arrangements and activities to foster scientific collaboration between countries and regions. Particularly, efforts to institutionalize science advice and capacity building at the national, regional, or international scale should take the structural conditions and effects of international scientific collaboration into account. As was argued earlier, scientific cooperation is key for supporting the development and implementation of marine conservation in and beyond national jurisdiction, yet, our data reveals substantial differences between cooperation patterns of developing and developed regions that may potentially hinder regional research networks.

Addressing these differences as part of the negotiations around a new legally binding instrument to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is important because the treaty may have direct ramifications for the practice of ocean science, including potential restriction for marine scientific research to account for global inequalities between the Global North and the global South. Access to marine biodiversity, more specifically to marine genetic resources (MGRs), is a high-stakes item for current negotiations; it involves complex scientific endeavours in which considerable investments, often government-funded, are made. Demands by countries of the global South for equal access to MGRs and the fair distribution of benefits resulting from their use are inherently tied to the unequal scientific capacities to explore and exploit those.

Capacity building and marine technology transfer (CBMTT) is another point of contention within current negotiations, for the demands of developing countries exceed what developed countries are willing to concede. CBMTT and scientific cooperation between governments of the global North and global South may have the potential to reduce some of the inequalities resulting from the resource and equipment-intensive character of marine scientific research. CBMTT in the new treaty should give primacy to the regional scale, for instance, by recommending that bilateral CBMTT arrangements should include research institutions or individual scientists from neighbouring countries.

What does it mean for future research?

The findings complement existing studies demonstrating deeply rooted inequalities between the global North and South in exploring marine biodiversity and calls for future research into the practices and effects of scientific collaboration in different regions and at different scales. It may be useful for future investigations of scientific collaboration in diverse fields of ocean science at the macro and micro levels of scientific practice.

Future studies may, for instance, look into how different regions contribute to specific topics or sub-disciplines, whether authors engage in ’strategic’ collaboration to shape their position or strategically use their collaboration capital, e.g., to gain access to marine environments, genetic resources, or other data. The results should be of interest to a broad spectrum of readers, including marine scientists, policy-makers, conservationists, and social scientists interested in science-policy interrelations. They may entice more in-depth investigations into the causes of structural imbalances in marine biodiversity research and anticipate critical, innovative thinking on how to overcome them in the future.

Open Access to full article: Tolochko, P. and Vadrot, A. 2021. The usual suspects? Distribution of collaboration capital in marine biodiversity research. Marine Policy 124 (2).

Past MARIPOLDATA blogs about the BBNJ negotiations:

Slow progress in the third BBNJ meeting: Negotiations are moving – but sideways, by Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki on September 6, 2019

Setting the stage for the common heritage of humankind principle: Diving into further negotiations on a new marine biodiversity treaty, by Alice Vadrot, Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki and Arne Langlet on August 28, 2019

Impressions from the second week of BBNJ negotiations and why they became political in the end, by Alice Vadrot and Arne Langlet on April 15, 2019


Blog written by Alice Vadrot & Petro Tolochko

MARIPOLDATA and Peter Jacques: Sustainability and Growth in the Oceans


Peter Jacques

On the 11th of March, the MARIPOLDATA team welcomed one of its international advisory network members: Doctor Peter Jacques from the University of Central Florida in Orlando (USA). He has a PhD in Political Science with a focus on the connection between environmental policy and foreign policy; and he is an expert in sustainability with specific experience in climate change policy, fisheries, and international marine policy. Some of his current research projects include the study of denial of climate change and its connections to western ideals of progress, the international regulation of ocean pollution and fisheries.

MARIPOLDATA organized a workshop with Peter Jacques to exchange views on ongoing and future research. The MARIPOLDATA team presented preliminary findings of our work, the methodological approach, which we develop to study the practice of agreement-making in tandem with the social study of scientific fields, and ideas on future research paths. Peter raised critical questions, such as “Do international relation theories properly thematize environmental issues and the current BBNJ case?” He was also engaged with what the BBNJ regime is and how to define it.

Evening talk in exceptional times

Peter was invited to give an open talk about the World Ocean Regime. The public event had to be canceled and replaced by an internal event with him and two discussants: Dr. Thomas Loidl, from MARIPOLDATA’s advisory network, and Dr. Monica Berg, our guest researcher. Peter presented the findings of the research article that he wrote with Rafaella Lobo: “The Shifting Context of Sustainability: Growth and the World Ocean Regime”, which explores the use of sustainability concepts in the supervision of fisheries. Peter discussed innovative theoretical and methodological approaches, as well as research findings. He started by emphasizing that the World Ocean Regime is an implicit, unwritten set of rules that governs the activities in the oceans beyond all international agreements. In other words, the World Ocean Regime is the ways in which countries and international organizations carry out activities in the oceans; and these ways are not explicitly written in any international document. To study this regime, he focused on the analysis of the reports over the State of the World Fisheries and Acquaculture (SOFIA reports). These have been published every two years by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) since 1995 and inform about the state of fisheries and associated laws. They are fundamental for the research because they assess all aspects that are related to and affect fish, such as, among others, temperature, food web, pollution, acidification: the SOFIA reports account for the conditions of the ocean.

The ocean faces different threats: acidification, biodiversity loss, increased temperatures, among others. As years pass by and these conditions worsen, Peter asked himself ‘Why is the World Ocean on fire?’.

Secondary questions came to mind when trying to find an answer: What has allowed this to happen? Why have Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) not kept fisheries sustainable? Are values, beliefs and norms responsible for this? What determines them? He concluded that discourses shape these questions: Discourses institutionalize thinking and expectations and are representations of reality. ‘But what determines how values, beliefs and norms are selected?’, Peter asked. Institutions might have a role in this.

Fisheries and Sustainability

Photo credits: Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

Peter and Rafaella used Quantitative Content Analysis (QCA) of the SOFIA reports back to 1995. This research method requires the proper identification of pre-processed text, this means, for instance, to exclude job titles, and indexes from the sample. Additionally, QCA requires the creation of a stemmed dictionary that encompasses all relevant words. They modified an existing dictionary and added social issues, science concerns, food issues, governance, overfishing, and a sample of specific fish stocks.

The following step was the creation of categories that represent the ideas to explore. These were life support, governance, economic-utilitarian values, specific fisheries, overfishing, social values, science, govern food, aesthetic, moral-spiritual. They later used hierarchical cluster analysis to test the coherence between the categories. They also used multidimensional scaling to make sure that categories are different from each other. The results showed that economic values dominate the discussion and that governance is the second most important category of all – the FAO focuses more on the growth of fisheries rather than on setting limits to how much fisheries can catch.

After this first phase, they decided to concentrate exclusively on a new category – Sustainability, which focuses on that economic activities do not exhaust natural resources so that future generations have access to these resources as well. Peter and Rafaella then aimed to answer the questions: How is the concept of sustainability used and how does it change over time? How are some norms chosen over others? To do this, they divided sustainability into three main profiles and added them to the dictionary they previously used. These profiles were principles of sustainability, sustainable development and maximum sustainable yield. The results showed that the principle of sustainability constitutes the majority of the discussions. Nevertheless, a deeper analysis of the results demonstrated that the reports portray sustainability primarily as an economic issue.

Findings and discussion

Jacques and Lobo concluded that ‘sustainability’, ‘sustainable development’ and related concepts have been used to secure economic norms that are in fact not sustainable. Their research argues that, while the FAO is not opposing ocean protection, economic growth is its main priority and ‘sustainability’ legitimizes its economic concerns.

Dr. Monika Berg, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Örebro, Sweden, and specialist on the science-policy interface and environmental policy took part in the event as a discussant. She asked questions related to the theoretical framework of the research. For example, she asked Peter why he selected the discourses of the FAO, how these reports relate to other sustainability discourses, if sustainability has become more relevant in the discourses because it has been subsumed in the economic discourse, how these norms are actually invisible, and how states and individuals are related to these discourses.

Peter concluded that the SOFIA reports and other sustainability discourses are interrelated because they are characterized by the use of a sustainable development concept that does not restrain how much fisheries can catch. He emphasized that sustainable development has always focused on economic growth and stressed that sustainability has effectively been subsumed in the economic discourse. Moreover, the economic demands of countries have not allowed conservation-oriented RFMOs to fulfill their tasks. This is closely related to the organization of the global economy and to the primary interest of the USA in shaping the discourses and regimes that govern fisheries. Finally, he clarified that these norms are invisible in the sense that they are hidden in the linguistic structure of the reports.

Dr. Thomas Loidl pointed out that there is not a reigning anarchy in the high seas. The lack of an overarching authority characterizes the socioeconomic reality of the areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). Additionally, there is a lack of compliance with international instruments that regulate activities in these areas, such as the different RFMOs.

Peter Jacques made it possible for the MARIPOLDATA team to get a closer look on the underlying growth discourse of the SOFIA reports. This is certainly a meaningful contribution to the understanding of the economic development of fisheries, a significant area for the mentioned BBNJ negotiations, and therefore, for the research of MARIPOLDATA.

If you want to listen to the recorded talk, feel free to email us (maripoldata.erc@univie.ac.at) indicating your interest and we will send you the link.


Jacques, P. J., & Lobo, R. (2018). The Shifting Context of Sustainability: Growth and the World Ocean Regime. Global Environmental Politics, 18(4), 85–106.

MARIPOLDATA explores international scientific cooperation at the All Atlantic Ocean Research Forum

Bringing together the Atlantic Research Community

On the 6th and 7th of February 2020, I attended on behalf of the MARIPOLDATA team the All-Atlantic Ocean Research Forum hosted by the European Commission. With the vision to strengthen the Atlantic community, the event gathered around 700 policy makers, scientists, civil society and business representatives. The participants came from the All-Atlantic Research Alliance members: European Union, USA, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Cape Verde and Argentina. Representatives of the very diverse scientific community doing research in or for the ocean included oceanographers, geologists, ecologists, biologists but also social and data scientists as well as many other fields. Furthermore, businesses and civil society actors that address oceanic and environmental issues were present and mixed with the scientists and policy makers during the many networking breaks. On top of that, Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth launched the All-Atlantic Ocean Youth Forum which invited 23 Youth Ambassadors to learn from and engage with political, social, economic and scientific leaders.

The program led the participants through five thematic sessions on (1) a Climate Resilient Ocean, (2) a Living and Diverse Atlantic Ocean, (3) Unveiling the Resources of the Atlantic Ocean, (4) Connecting our Atlantic Ocean to our Citizens and (5) a Pollution-Free Atlantic Ocean. In each thematic session, a number of innovative scientific or societal projects presented possible solutions for some of the challenges facing the Atlantic Ocean. These exhibitions were followed by panel discussions in which political and civil society leaders debated how to apply and build on the knowledge and ideas introduced in the presentations.

The conference gave an overview about the progress in marine research cooperation that the European Union and its partners across the Atlantic Ocean have achieved since the signing of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation (EU – US – Canada) and the Belém Statement on Atlantic Research and Innovation Cooperation (EU – Brazil – South Africa) in 2017. These declarations initiated political efforts to integrate and commonly undertake research activities all across the Atlantic Ocean. The two-day All Atlantic Research Forum now brought the oceanic community together, displaying the results and outcomes of this research cooperation, while also defining a vision to continue and strengthen the international cooperation in the upcoming years. In the following, I will give an overview over the main themes and learnings from the event and how and why they matter for the ongoing negotiations on a legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of Biodiversity in areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ).

I participated in the conference in my capacity as a PhD student within the ERC project MARIPOLDATA to learn about the status of Atlantic Ocean research cooperation and about the relations between science and policy-making in this process.

This discussion on the science-policy interface links the All Atlantic Research Forum to the ongoing negotiations of a new legally-binding treaty under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea aiming at the protection of marine biodiversity. The BBNJ negotiations will go into the fourth intergovernmental session from March 23 to April 4 2020 at the UN Headquarters in New York. Effective science-policy interrelations are crucial for the formulation and implementation of an effective and ambitious treaty and serve as the research focus for the MARIPOLDATA project.

With an eye on the upcoming BBNJ negotiation session, what can we learn from the practice of international scientific cooperation exhibited at the All-Atlantic Ocean Research Forum?

Manuel Heitor, Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education, Portugal welcomes the participants during the second day, highlighting the importance of international cooperation between scientists and civil society to achieve “science for a better community”

International Research Cooperation in Action

To begin with, international scientific cooperation across the Atlantic Ocean basin exists and flourishes. The sea not only separates but also connects continents and countries. The efforts of the Atlantic ocean research community to explore and understand the ocean from north to south (pole to pole) and from the surface to the bottom are an excellent example of how international scientific cooperation looks like and how such science diplomacy contributes to building trust, capacity and a common understanding of the ocean´s problems.

The importance of cooperation in the organization of common expeditions and cruises as well as in the maintenance of data infrastructures and open sharing of data was repeatedly highlighted and demonstrated through practical examples. International cooperation initiatives such as the Horizon 2020 funded AtlantOS Ocean observing program or the Atlantic International Research center are the concrete fruits of the political will to team up for exploring the ocean.

Many of the topics discussed at the All Atlantic Ocean Research Forum also play a role in the context of the BBNJ negotiations. For example, all thematic sessions addressed questions on the sharing and exchanging of scientific data, be it in relation to the work of IPBES on terrestrial biodiversity data or the use of data for hydrographic services. The scientific community at the Forum discussed how to bring data from different sources together and how standards for data formats and metadata can be agreed upon in light of different scientific realities and cultures of scientific enquiry. A very similar discussion is taking place in the BBNJ negotiations.

MARIPOLDATA was present amongst many other initiatives

In the framework of the Atlantic scientific cooperation, the European Commission invested in a number of open data initiatives such as the Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Services which provides free access to environmental monitoring data from satellites, weather stations, ocean buoys and a range of other sources. But also private sector projects such as Fugro through the seabed mapping project, increasingly make data publicly available to the scientific and public community.

While the road towards open access for everyone is long, the conference participants confirmed that as one All Atlantic Youth Ambassador claimed it: “ocean data belongs to everyone and everyone should have access to it”.

The All Atlantic Research Forum acknowledges, as does the MARIPOLDATA project, the large inequalities in the capacities and economic resources to conduct ocean science. These inequalities are one of the largest obstacles to the creation of a common understanding of the environmental, societal and economical challenges and opportunities that the Atlantic represents. Particularly the dense and institutionalized cooperation networks between European scientists are a resource that African researchers cannot rely upon.

On the importance of the science to policy (and society) interface:

Most importantly however, all participants agreed that the importance of science-policy interrelations has so far been understated and needs to be significantly strengthened in any future scientific cooperation initiatives or in international fora such as the BBNJ negotiations. In the BBNJ negotiations, we observe that many states use scientific claims to exert influence on the treaty draft text. The institutionalization of the science-policy interface in a possible upcoming treaty is yet undefined and feeds the research of the MARIPOLDATA project.

As Pascal Lamy, Chair of the Horizon Europe Mission Healthy Oceans, Seas, Coastal and Inland Waters, formulated it quite fittingly: “There is a long bridge between science and politics and we have had a big problem crossing this bridge”. In consequence, many panels at the Research Forum tackled questions on how to better communicate scientific findings, support political decisions with scientific knowledge and create awareness for ocean issues amongst the public or policy makers. One finding was that the interface between science and society or politics needs to receive increased attention and investments.

Panelists especially highlighted the role of scientific communication and storytelling, in order to reach and stronger include society into ocean research and protection. The BBC Blue Planet documentaries for example have managed to make large audiences aware of plastic pollution in the oceans. Storytelling and good communication can establish an emotional connection to the ocean.

Some panelists noted that there is a difference between natural sciences and social sciences and that the role of social sciences and social innovations cannot be overstated. While the natural sciences can bring certain information about the state of the marine ecosystems to the table, social sciences need to bring it into political and social context. But the participants agreed that communication should not be understood as a one way street because knowledge production can only happen in interaction via a user-driven and interdisciplinary process.

Ways to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Citizens: experiencing the thrill of being an oceanographer via video games

Ways to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Citizens: stories that create an emotional connection















The Atlantic Ocean, as other ocean ecosystems, is undergoing profound changes that are well- documented in the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere and the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. In order to reach any ocean-related environmental target such as the SDG 14 on the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean, a broad and strong alliance between governments, science, businesses, civil society and education needs to contribute to understanding and sustainably managing our oceans.

The All Atlantic Ocean Research Forum gave political impetus for transnational scientific cooperation to support the implementation of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. It also fostered international networks between scientists, civil society and businesses that may contribute to reaching the priorities such as the European Green Deal, the Horizon Europe Mission Healthy Oceans, Seas, Coastal and Inland Waters and other national or regional commitments.

For me, the All Atlantic Ocean Research Forum was an exciting exhibition of current international cooperation in ocean research. I was able to learn a lot about the practices of the many research initiatives that were present at the Forum. The MARIPOLDATA project can contribute to better understand some of the challenges to connect the science to political and societal processes.


MARIPOLDATA interactive dashboard: showing the evolution of the Marine Biodiversity field since 1990

Marine biodiversity science is central for current efforts to establish a new treaty for the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). However, for a long time, a lack of scientific knowledge on the ocean was conceived as the main challenge for advancing efforts to protect ocean ecosystems. Nowadays the field is evolving quickly. New initiatives such as the Census of Marine Life or the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) contributed to the rise of new data and a deeper understanding of the marine world and of its different components.

In order to understand how science has shaped international efforts to protect marine biodiversity, the MARIPOLDATA project combines the empirical study of international negotiations with a systematic analysis of the development and characteristics of the scientific field. Examining the role of science in international negotiations enables us to study and observe the role of science in the making of a new treaty and to shed light on how scientific capital influences the preferences of governments on how marine biodiversity ought to be protected, shared and sustainably used.

To this end, MARIPOLDATA (WP2) develops a large database of scientific publications related to marine biodiversity, analyzing the content of the publications, as well as international collaboration patterns in the discipline. The current blog serves as the first foray into our results and can be accessed here:

With this interactive entry, we show how the field of marine biodiversity has been evolving in the past 30 years in terms of content. Marine biodiversity can be defined as “an aggregation of highly interconnected ecosystem components or features, encompassing all levels of biological organization from genes, species, populations to ecosystems […]” (Cochrane et al. 2017).The interactive dashboard allows to dive deeper into this aggregation and the different aspects covered by the concept. The dashboard is designed to show what has been written about marine biodiversity, more specifically what keywords authors use, when writing scientific publications in the field, and how the keywords are related to each other. Since the field of marine biodiversity is a rather diverse in and of itself, this visualization allows to trace the patterns of keywords and the scope of the discipline, which was continuously increasing in the last 30 years.

This visualization is based on 26.000 scientific abstracts from 1990 until 2019 (retrieved from Web of Science), and you can choose any year within this time period to see whether the keywords, or their patterns of co-occurrence have changed over time. The keywords are connected if they appear, or “co-occur” in the same abstract. By default, the visualization shows the top (highest frequency) 100 keyword pairs from the selected year, but you can select to show top 50 to top 750 pairs.

The interactive dashboard will evolve over time with more functionality and more interesting data added. We will keep you posted.

Link to the dashboard: https://maripoldata.shinyapps.io/keywords_shiny/

(Note: the colors are mainly for aesthetic reasons and should not be over interpreted.)


Wie die Welt marine Biodiversität verhandelt

Die Zukunft der marinen Artenvielfalt ist ungewiss und wird derzeit diskutiert. Das MARIPOLDATA Projekt untersucht die Verhandlungen über ein neues, internationales Abkommen, um herauszufinden, wie Macht und Wissenschaft in der internationalen Umweltpolitik zusammenspielen.

Steigendes wirtschaftliches Interesse an Meeresressourcen, fortschreitende Technologie und Digitalisierung, neue Erkenntnisse über die Tiefsee sowie Umweltauswirkungen auf marine Artenvielfalt und Ökosysteme zeigen Lücken im bestehenden Seerechtsabkommen der Vereinten Nationen (UNCLOS) auf und erfordern eine Regulierung der außerhalb staatlicher Rechtsprechung liegenden Meeresgebiete. Diese machen ca. 94 Prozent des Volumens unserer Ozeane aus. Als Antwort wird momentan ein internationales Abkommen für den Schutz und die nachhaltige Nutzung der Biodiversität in Gebieten der hohen See und des Tiefseebodens (Biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction – BBNJ) im Rahmen der Vereinten Nationen verhandelt. Das Abkommen umfasst marine Genressourcen, gebietsbezogene Managementmaßnahmen einschließlich Meeresschutzgebiete, Umweltverträglichkeitsprüfungen und Kapazitätsaufbau sowie Transfer von Meerestechnologie.

Der Beitrag ist im Rahmen der aktuellen SEMESTERFRAGE der Uni Wien entstanden

Das MARIPOLDATA Projekt „The Politics of Marine Biodiversity Data: Global and National Policies and Practices of Monitoring the Oceans“ untersucht die Verhandlungen über das neue Abkommen dahingehend, wie Macht und Wissenschaft in der internationalen Umweltpolitik zusammenspielen. Das Ziel des MARIPOLDATA Teams, bestehend aus Alice Vadrot, der Leiterin des Projekts, Emmanuelle Brogat, Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki, Petro Tolochko und Arne Langlet, ist es, einen neuen interdisziplinären Ansatz zu entwickeln, um die (geo-) politische Rolle globaler und nationaler Forschungs- und Dateninfrastrukturen und das Ineinanderwirken von Wissenschaft und Politik neu denken und empirisch erfassen zu können.

Dies ist von Bedeutung für marine Ökosysteme, über die – besonders in der Tiefsee – kaum Daten zur Verfügung stehen. Die Forschung in der Hoch- und Tiefsee ist kostspielig und wird nur von einer überschaubaren Anzahl an Staaten betrieben und finanziert. Unternehmen, die in internationalen Gewässern forschen, sind nicht verpflichtet, ihre Daten oder daraus entstehende Gewinne zu teilen, etwa aus der Patentierung mariner genetischer Ressourcen.

Die aktuellen Verhandlungen sind existenziell für die marine Biodiversität und das Streben nach einer gerechten und nachhaltigen Nutzung der Meere. Die Regulierung der Meeresgebiete außerhalb staatlicher Rechtsprechung ist bislang lediglich teilweise durch fragmentierte regionale Schutzabkommen geregelt und ein Abkommen könnte einen großen Schritt zu mehr Artenschutz in den Weltmeeren bedeuten.

Wie funktioniert die Schnittstelle zwischen Wissenschaft und internationaler Politik?

Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki und Alice Vadrot bei den BBNJ Verhandlungen in den UN

Ina, Doktorandin im MARIPOLDATA Team, mit akademischen Hintergrund in Internationale Beziehungen und einer Leidenschaft für Umweltschutz, interessiert sie sich für Internationale Kooperation in Umweltfragen und spezialisiert sich auf Umweltprobleme, die sich – aufgrund ihres transnationalen Charakters – nur in internationalen Foren lösen lassen. Durch das Beobachten der Verhandlungen vor Ort und Interviews mit VertreterInnen von Regierungen, NGOs und der Wissenschaft, möchte sie zeigen, wie sich auf bestimmte Inhalte der Verhandlungen geeinigt wird und über welche Wege und Akteure es bestimmte Konzepte in den Vertragstext schaffen, während andere keine Priorität erhalten. Mit ihrer Forschung möchte Ina die aktuelle Praxis von Verhandlungen zu internationalen Umweltabkommen verstehen und aufzeigen, wessen Stimmen und Ideen auf welchen Wegen in der internationalen Umweltpolitik Gehör finden.

Arne, ebenfalls Doktorand im Team und in Nähe sowie enger Verbundenheit zum Meer aufgewachsen, freut sich, über das Projekt einen kleinen Beitrag dazu zu leisten, wie

Arne Langlet und Alice Vadrot im UN Verhandlungssaal

die Ozeane in den nächsten Jahrzehnten verwaltet und geschützt werden. Mit seiner Forschung versucht er, den Einfluss der sozialen Netzwerke, die zwischen Staaten und ExpertInnen existieren, aufzuzeigen. So kann ein Netzwerk-orientiertes Verständnis von Macht in internationalen Verhandlungen die Akteure sensibilisieren, dass bestehende Ungleichheiten nicht in einen neuen internationalen Körper kopiert werden und dort für Konflikte und das Nicht-Durchführen von Schutzmaßnahmen sorgen.

Petro, der Post-Doc des Projekts, untersucht den wissenschaftlichen Output der Meeresforschung anhand von quantitativen Indikatoren. So kann er in diesem bisher kaum erforschten wissenschaftssoziologischen Gebiet aufzeigen, dass es eine signifikante globale Ungleichheit im wissenschaftlichen Nutzen der Ozeane gibt und welche Themen von ForscherInnen aus verschiedenen Erdteilen besonders bedient werden.

Die Zukunft der marinen Artenvielfalt ist ungewiss und wird derzeit verhandelt. Gemeinsam arbeitet das MARIPOLDATA Team daran, mit den gewonnen Erkenntnissen die wissenschaftliche Debatte voranzubringen und die politischen VerhandlerInnen zu informieren. So hofft das Team, einen positiven Beitrag zu der Entstehung eines fairen und anspruchsvollen Abkommens zu leisten, welches die marine Artenvielfalt nachhaltig und unter Einbeziehung von wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnissen überall auf der Welt schützt.

Dieser Blog wurde vom MARIPOLDATA-Team für den Univie Blog geschrieben. Der Originalartikel kann im Blog der Universität Wien HIER nachgelesen werden.

Roundtable Reflections: Using Oral History in Marine Science-Policy Relations

Reported by Bekki Parrish NERC-funded Policy Intern (May – July 2019) and Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator.

Coinciding with the ongoing negotiations on legal instruments to protect marine biological diversity under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), CSaP convened a roundtable in conjunction with Dr Alice Vadrot, Assistant Professor and MARIPOLDATA Project Principal Investigator, on the use of oral histories in marine conservation.

Oral histories are a powerful interview tool for developing personal narratives and exploring how historical experiences and knowledge impact upon personal insights, sense of identity, and future endeavours. Throughout the roundtable, the importance of this tool in information propagation, science, and policymaking, was made salient through researchers’ experiences, including Dr. Vadrot’s experience using oral histories to map expertise in the field of marine biodiversity.

Through oral history mapping projects, researchers can identify the lead scientific experts and their networks, understand how information travels through such networks and how scientists are positioned in order to support intergovernmental negotiations regarding marine protection. These efforts shine light on the intersections between science, policy and politics, while highlighting key points at which those working in marine biodiversity science can best engage with intergovernmental policy efforts.

Dr. Vadrot was joined on the panel by Dr Sally Horrocks and Dr Paul Merchant, both of whom are researchers with the National Life Stories oral history programme, which was recently commissioned to collect multi-session interviews with scientists and engineers, and is supported by the British Library. Sharing evidence gathered from interviews with oceanographers such as Philip Woodworth, Dr. Merchant highlighted two key avenues through which scientists become involved in international negotiations and intergovernmental policy-formation: policy relevancy resulting in expert consultation, and research driven by government funding. These discussions emphasized the importance of effective communications between scientists and those outside academia at a time when marine issues including biodiversity and plastic pollution are high on the global policymaking agenda.

CSaP seeks to foster knowledge exchanges and create new links between academics and practitioners with a view to supporting the relationship between those tackling challenges in the science and policy sectors. MARIPOLDATA is an ERC Starting Grant Project and this workshop was also part of the main objective of the project to develop a new methodology to study science policy interrelation in practice.

This blog has been written and published by the Centre for Science and Policy. The original article can be consulted HERE.




MARIPOLDATA Methods Workshop

On the 10th and 11th of September, the MARIPOLDATA project hosted a workshop on conceptual and methodological frameworks and approaches for research at global environmental negotiations. The workshop built strongly on the work by Hughes and Vadrot on Methodological Innovation in the Study of Global Environmental Agreement Making and was held in relation to the research conducted by the MARIPOLDATA team at the ongoing Intergovernmental Conference on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) in New York. Scholars from different parts of the world and different disciplines came together to bring their experience in global environmental negotiations to the table to develop methodological innovations. Postgraduate scholars had the chance to discuss interactively their needs and perspectives with the experienced academics. The goals were defined in regards of the research that the MARIPOLDATA team is conducting at the BBNJ negotiations: To develop methodological innovations that may transform how we collectively study global environmental agreement making, while also giving practical guidance for early career researchers and others interested in the study of environmental meetings. The insights generated in the interdisciplinary and very interactive workshops can be applied throughout the investigation process that the MARIPOLDATA team undertakes at the BBNJ meetings.

Tracy Bach (Vermont Law School) and Beth Martin (Washington University) presented a text on the practicalities of being an observer, introducing the particular and sometimes overwhelming aspects of international negotiation sites as research spaces. Their contribution helps future researchers to navigate not only the physical but also the intellectual negotiating spaces.

Jen Iris Allan (Cardiff University) and Pamela Chasek (Manhattan College) drew from their vast experience as authors and managers of the Earth Negotiation Bulletin in order to deliver a contribution overviewing the various types of textual documents that are available in the process of international environmental negotiations and how to approach them analytically.

Yulia Yamineva from the University of Finland shared her experience in conducting interviews at international environmental negotiations. Because interviewing diplomats during ongoing negotiations underlies different methodological challenges such as very limited and often spontaneous availability of the interviewees, researchers that want to conduct and use interviews need to take into account some common pitfalls and tips that were mentioned.

On the second day, Marcela Vecchione Gonçalves from the Center for Amazonian Studies at the Federal University of Pará shared her insights on the ethics of researching indigenous peoples’ representation at international meetings. Indigenous peoples are increasingly represented at international negotiations concerning the climate, biodiversity and the oceans and researchers should approach them as subjects of policy-making, taking indigenous understandings of cosmopolitics seriously.

Kim Marion Suiseeya from the Northwestern University explored the opportunities that ethnographic research provides for studying international negotiation sites and highlighted the importance that researchers iteratively reflect on their work and their subjective interpretation of their observations.

Noella Gray from the University of Guelph contributed with a view on collaboration and multi-sited ethnography. Sharing her extensive experience in collaborative projects, she emphasized that coordinated research in a team has a number of advantages that go beyond the increased number of ‘eyes and ears’ at the research site.

Jennifer Bansard from the University of Potsdam contributed with a text on how to approach side events, issue-specific events taking place outside but parallel to the negotiations, at international environmental negotiations. Side events could be studied either as objects of research or as sites for data collection both of which approaches require different practical and methodological considerations.


Group picture of the participants of the MARIPOLDATA Methods Workshop

In the subsequent roundtable all participants discussed lively why this sort of research matters and may matter increasingly as more and more international bodies are being created. They also discussed what steps the group needs to take next in order to further the methodological conversation and realize the practical guide for young researchers. All scholars left with many ideas and suggestions for collaborative projects in the future.

On Thursday, Marcela Vecchione Gonçalves concluded this eventful week with a public presentation on the situation of indigenous people, land and climate politics in Brazil. While the diverse audience listened attentively, Marcela Gonçalves demonstrated impressively how seemingly local struggles between indigenous land holders and agricultural corporations in the Amazon region are interrelated with political struggles on the national level – not only in Brazil but in European countries as well – and international environmental negotiations.



Slow progress in the third BBNJ meeting: Negotiations are moving – but sideways

After the observations of the first week of the third Intergovernmental Conference (IGC 3) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity, the MARIPOLDATA team shares insights of the second week. This blog entry provides a summary of the topics discussed, overall progress made, as well as the challenges that remain to be resolved for the upcoming fourth Intergovernmental Conference (IGC 4) in March 2020.

Imagine all the people, sharing all the ocean

To whom belong the parts of the ocean that are shared among all states? Under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), states are free to navigate the areas beyond national jurisdiction and can enjoy “the freedom of the high seas” (UNCLOS Art 87). However, does that imply that all states can collect resources in these areas, conduct research, discover new species and develop new pharmaceutical or other commercial products from the marine genetic material found in the depths of our common ocean? Marine scientific research is costly and not all states have the capacities to access marine genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction. But should the ones who invest in discovering new species and developing new products not be allowed to own their “treasure”? This calls for a new regulatory framework for marine genetic resources (MGRs), which constitutes one of the four pillars of the future new legally binding instrument. The question is whether this agreement will allow for “first come – first serve” or ensure that the resources of our ocean are considered “common heritage of humankind” with access to and benefits from these resources being shared among all states, taking into consideration current and future generations, as well as the environment in itself.

Delegations negotiating the BBNJ zero draft text, while NGOs and IGOs observe from the side

The BBNJ crab dance

The second week of negotiations of the third Intergovernmental Conference (IGC 3) continued with discussions on the remaining cross-cutting issues, and the four BBNJ packages marine genetic resources (MGRs), area-based management tools (ABMTs), environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and capacity building and the transfer of marine technology (CB&TT). The conference included the two formats of the previous week, namely “Informal Working Groups” – discussions in the plenary, which were open to all participants of the conference, including non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations (NGOs and IGOs) – and so called “Informal Informals”, which were held in a smaller room, with restricted access for NGOs and without the participation of the press. The presidency had introduced the informal informals in the first week of ICG 3 to allow government representatives to negotiate text in an informal setting and eventually start developing compromised treaty language.

The MARIPOLDATA team representing the University of Vienna as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)

Enthusiasm for the structure of the informal informals, however, was rather limited: On the side of the NGOs because they were only permitted restricted access and on the side of the government representatives because the dynamic was very similar to the discussions in the plenary, not allowing for informal talks on specific issues that needed further elaboration. With only a few delegates praising this format, the majority was calling for a different dynamic of the sessions, with the opportunity for more in-depth, informal conversation, as well as greater transparency. Despite the formality of all sessions, discussions progressed in the different topics. Such progress could largely be seen in textual formulations, regarding agreement on the inclusion and exclusion of certain wording, re-structuring, streamlining or adding of articles and paragraphs. Nevertheless, key issues that have divided states’ positions since the beginning of the meetings, could not be resolved at this conference. Although only one further IGC is planned, the past 2-weeks of the BBNJ process rather reflected the walking of a crab – moving sideways, not forward.


Regarding marine genetic resources (MGRs), delegates agreed that the provisions in ABNJ should only apply after entry into force of the agreement, rather than retroactively[1]. However, key definitions remained unclarified, such as “marine genetic material” or “access to” MGRs. Further elaboration will be necessary on agreeing whether access to MGRs would entail collecting the resource where found/originated, where processed, or also to include digital sequence data and derivatives. Delegations are particularly divided on the question whether fish should be included as a marine genetic resource, due to concerns of impacts on current fisheries management and the problematic definition of “fish”. Another issue that will require further discussions are intellectual property rights regarding MGRs.

Discussions on area-based management tools (ABMTs) and marine protected areas (MPAs) achieved progress in clarifying the specific steps of the process. Delegates agreed that consultation and assessment of proposals for ABMTs should be inclusive, open and transparent[2]. They identified a potential advisory role for a scientific and technical body for making these proposals, however, there is still a lack of shared understanding on definitions of ABMTs and MPAs and implications for their respective processes. There is agreement that state parties should be responsible for making the proposals for ABMTs and MPAs but delegations are still divided on the question whether a scientific and technical body should be involved in monitoring and review. Another issue that has sparked disagreement and remains unresolved is the relation between the new instrument and other legal global, regional, sub-regional and sectoral bodies, which has been slowing down progress over the past two weeks.

Delegates welcomed discussions regarding environmental impact assessments (EIAs), expressing the need for monitoring, reporting and review. However, the discussions did not give answers on thresholds or criteria to be used for EIAs and divided delegations into some supporting an “impact-oriented”, and others preferring an “activity-oriented” approach. Disagreement remains in regards to the type of impacts, including transboundary and cumulative impacts, as well as social, economic, cultural and health impacts. While governments of the Global South would like to see a reference to social, economic and cultural impacts of harmful activities in ABNJ – particularly on coastal states – governments of the Global North prefer a narrow focus on environmental impacts only. Whether to have a reference to coastal states at all remained contested and had to be postponed to future meetings. Similarly, discussions have not moved forward on identifying the role that traditional knowledge might play within the framework of an environmental impact assessment. Also the potential function of a scientific and technical body requires further elaboration, however, delegates generally preferred state parties to be the responsible entity.

Considering the limited capacity of developing countries, particularly of the least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), and capacity building and the transfer of marine technology (CB&TT) is of key importance for the G77/CHINA, the PSIDS, the African Group, as well as the Core Latin American Countries (CLAM) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Discussions on CB&TT showed progress on the potential role of the Conference of the Parties (COP) in developing a list of guidelines and in undertaking monitoring and review[3]. However, there are still diverging views on whether capacity building and marine technology transfer should have a mandatory element and be complemented by voluntary efforts, or if it should solely be voluntary. Questions, moreover, remain on which countries should benefit from CB&TT.

Regarding cross-cutting issues, delegates generally agreed on the establishment of a “clearing-house mechanism” (CHM), to provide a platform for sharing information and data. Discussions included the question of which entity to be the responsible body, whether to make information publicly available, how to deal with confidential data, as well as possible functions. Ideas included the dissemination of pre-cruise information and post-cruise notification, documentation of EIAs and cooperation regarding ABMTs[4]. While there was general agreement on making data and information publicly available while ensuring that confidential information is exempted, there is so far no agreement on the type of data and information that the CHM is supposed to provide, nor which body should be responsible for managing it. Suggestions include the Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission (IOC-UNESCO) and the secretariat which will be established under the new instrument[5]. There was also overall support for the establishment of a Conference of the Parties (COP) to, among other functions, determine CB&TT types[6].

The part on the settlement of disputes could not be sufficiently discussed, even though delegates stayed longer than the interpreters were available. While there was agreement that states have an obligation to settle disputes by peaceful means, no agreement emerged on the procedures for such settlements, as positions divergence on to what extent the article should be drafted on the model of UNCLOS and what this would imply for its non-parties.

Several delegates emphasised the inclusion of the use of best available science and traditional knowledge of indigenous people and local communities, as well as additional principles, such as adjacency, transparency, the polluter pays principle, intra- and intergenerational equity, and the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment[7][8]. The PSIDS advocated for the establishment of a scientific, technical and technological body, and the inclusion of traditional knowledge of indigenous people and local communities, as well as the recognition of the special circumstances of SIDS.

Even though delegates already started text-based negotiations, discussing specific wording, no treaty will be concluded before states agree on the key issues that still divide positions until now. Therefore – considering that there is currently only one more BBNJ conference planned – state delegations have already expressed the need for quality of the agreement, rather than finishing in time and rushing into a treaty that everyone can interpret differently, or which implementation is not realistic.

Sailing in the same “IG-sea”

When the sun set over the UN headquarters on Friday, the discussions had already ended, as progress was not to be expected on the major issues until the next IGC. As the delegate of Japan mentioned in the ending remarks: This conference laid out the different positions of delegations and their level of flexibility very well[9]. But now everyone is looking towards the next conference with expectations: With the expectation that the president compiles the discussions into a first draft and proposes a negotiation format that will give delegates with their diverging views and interests sufficient time to discuss. Simultaneously, with the expectation that the draft covers as many issues as possible and guarantees transparency and representation of the delegations in the working groups. Not an easy task, considering the contrasting requests from delegations. While some delegations request a streamlined text, others prefer to have an options-based text, with all the points and positions raised at this conference.

Delegates and representatives from non-governmental organisations would like to see the text of the first draft until the end of 2019, ideally already by October, which would give delegates time to review the different positions and prepare their statements. But rather than repeating what happened in IGC 3 – namely coming together to highlight the important issues for their own countries – IGC 4 is expected to focus on compromise of statements. Some delegates suggested to have meetings within their regions and prepare proposals already in advance of the conference. This would allow for discussions prior to IGC 4 and enable a steep start into negotiations when they get back together in March 2020.

But an equitable and fair outcome of this agreement will be hard to negotiate if limited capacity to participate, as well as to fully grasp the content of the negotiations is not guaranteed for all states. While there are some delegations with over 10 representatives, some states have no representation at all. Will this instrument be able to universally reflect the common grounds of all states even if they are disproportionately represented, and with diverse expertise and experiences? The trust fund offers the possibility to sponsor delegates from developing countries, however is highly reliant on voluntary contributions by states, intergovernmental organisations and private persons. This IGC, financial resources in the fund only allowed for five delegates from developing countries to attend the conference while others were left without funding and hence without voice, unless their position could be represented by a group of states they aligned with.

Hope was gained back, when delegations – which had the previous two weeks been insisting on their own interests – reflected the need for cooperation in their closing statements. President Rena Lee looked up to the window where curious visitors watch the negotiations from time to time and shared: “I wonder what they are thinking about us”, reminding the delegates of their important mandate. There seemed to be the realisation that “we are living in a common world and are sailing in a single sea”[10] and that while our “common canoe gets more and more vulnerable, we need to paddle even faster”[11].

Sunset over the third Intergovernmental Conference



[1] ENB Report Vol. 25 No.218, Sep 2, p. 22, retrieved from: https://enb.iisd.org/download/pdf/enb25218e.pdf.

[2] Ibid. p.10.

[3] Ibid. p, 16

[4] ENB Report, 27th August 2019, Vol 25 No.214, p.2, retrieved from: http://enb.iisd.org/download/pdf/enb25214e.pdf.

[5] ENB Report, 28th August, Vol 25 No 215, p.2, retrieved from: http://enb.iisd.org/download/pdf/enb25215e.pdf.

[6] ENB Report Vol. 25 No.218, Sep 2, p. 2, retrieved from: https://enb.iisd.org/download/pdf/enb25218e.pdf.

[7] Ibid. p.5

[8] BBNJ ICG 3, Closing Statement of Paraguay on behalf of AOSIS, retrieved from: http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/21996902/paraguay-eng-.pdf

[9] Delegate of Japan, BBNJ IGC 3, Closing Statements, 30th August, 3.45pm

[10] Delegate of the Philippines, BBNJ IGC3, Closing statements, 30th August 4.11pm

[11] IUCN, BBNJ IGC 3, Closing statements, 30th August, 4.30pm




Setting the stage for the common heritage of humankind principle: Diving into further negotiations on a new marine biodiversity treaty

Between August 19th and August 31st, the UN headquarters in New York host the third intergovernmental conference (IGC 3) on an international legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The MARIPOLDATA team is using this opportunity to observe and analyze the negotiations and conduct interviews with delegates from State Parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including scientists. These are the impressions of the first week of negotiations.

In the previous conferences, the delegations exchanged views on the four items of the draft agreement: marine genetic resources (MGRs), area-based management tools (ABMTs), including marine protected areas (MPAs), environmental impact assessments (EIAs), capacity building and the transfer of marine technology (CB&TT), as well as on cross-cutting issues such as the institutional set-up and the relation of the new treaty to other existing sectoral or regional regimes that currently govern the oceans. On the basis of this exchange of opinions, the presidency circulated a President’s Aid for negotiations at IGC 2, which forms the basis for a  zero draft document.  For the first time since the initiation of the BBNJ process there is a document containing treaty language.

A whale installation in the entrance of the UN building draws attention to the BBNJ negotiations

Here at IGC 3, the negotiations have entered into a decisive phase, in which delegations need to negotiate and compromise on the individual provisions of the treaty. To set the scene for crucial days of negotiations, Greenpeace, the High Seas Alliance (HSA) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) collaborated to install a large figure of a whale erupting from a sea of plastic trash on the UN terrace and the High Seas Alliance together with the Turkish Marine Research Foundation installed a photographic exhibition to increase awareness for marine conservation.

Exhibition in the hallways of the conference rooms portraying pictures of the marine environment

A beautiful morning together

The plenary hall

During the first days, the delegations started discussing the topics of CB&TT and ABMTs and cross-cutting issues. The good and collegial atmosphere that existed between the delegates during IGC 2 was successfully carried over to IGC 3, particularly when the delegate from the Federated States of Micronesia welcomed the facilitator of the informal working group on area-based management tools with the words: “We thank you for bringing ABMT to us – another beautiful morning together”.

Regardless of the friendly atmosphere, negotiators were ready to go directly to the heart of matters. When the countries delivered their opening statements for the upcoming session, representatives of delegations and observers from NGOs, IGOs and many regional seas or fisheries organizations filled all seats of the plenary hall.

It became clear that not only the good atmosphere but also the substantial disagreements were carried straight from IGC 2 to IGC 3 and directly addressed in the opening statements. Palestine, on behalf of the group of the G77 and China, representing 134 countries, as well as the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) strongly voiced the demand to the see the principle of “common heritage of mankind” in the treaty text and also Algeria on behalf of the African Group representing 54 African states noted that the principle is absent but that the spirit is sometimes present. This principle, which already in the conferences building up to the third IGC was identified as possibly one of the key issues of contention, had surprisingly been taken out of the zero draft text.

Disagreement also emerged in discussions on Article 3, concerning the paragraph dealing with exceptions for state vessels and warships. Some countries argued that this should not be questioned, as it falls under the freedom of the seas under UNCLOS. Others raised the concern that state vessels could engage in marine research and make use of marine genetic resources. This would be a problem if the agreement wants to guarantee equitable and fair benefit sharing of resources. Furthermore, the debate whether the instrument should refer to the precautionary principle or a precautionary approach remained without agreement at the end of the week. States also raised concerns regarding the lack of common definitions for a number of matters such as criteria for area-based management tools.

Informally negotiating in “informal informals” and restrictions for NGOs

The third IGC introduced to the conference a new negotiation format. In “informal informals” states can now debate and negotiate more informally than in discussions in the working groups and the plenary, and without the presence of the media and the ENB reporters. The presidency hopes that in this way, the delegates can respond to and address issues much more directly.

In order to still ensure a level of transparency, the NGO sector was allocated a total number of five seats which have to be shared by all participating NGOs. The fact that NGOs were granted – albeit limited – access to informal informals, was perceived as a very NGO-friendly policy and a large step towards transparent policy-making. However, they would not be able to intervene in this setting and due to limited capacity in the conference room, the more than 40 NGOs needed to decide amongst one another, who could sit in the informal negotiations. In order to coordinate between themselves which NGO – according to its specific interest and expertise – can sit in which informal informals session, a daily NGO meeting was set up each morning before the negotiations.

Apart from the discussions in the plenary and the informal informals, a variety of closed coordination meetings, bilateral and multilateral discussions took place throughout the week in which delegates could exchange views and discuss key issues amongst a smaller group.

Awakening the “Regime Complex”

The relationship of the evolving BBNJ instrument to other existing sectoral and regional bodies established under the UN system such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) or Regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) was a prominent topic during the first week. The treaty that is being developed possibly affects all areas of the world´s ocean and different topics of international politics such as fishing, mining, shipping, communication through the use of deep sea cables, deep sea exploration and scientific cooperation.

Because the potential reach is global and many areas are governed by different and already existing bodies, the question of how to relate a new treaty to the existing frameworks is a crucial one. A new treaty will not exist independently of other international regimes and will eventually function within a regime complex where negotiators fear to create a structure that is contradictory, duplicative and where different bodies compete with each other for competences.

This fear could clearly be observed in the discussions on different parts of the draft text. Concerning the issue of capacity building and the transfer of marine technology, many states noted that various initiatives through which states assist each other in building capacity in marine research already exist. When addressing area-based management tools such as marine protected areas, the negotiators also noted that different institutions already have different systems to identify and designate areas for protective purposes.

A lot of reference was made to the so-called EBSA process under the hospices of the CBD which gives a scientific recommendation to identify ecologically or significant marine areas. Different regional seas and fisheries organizations such as the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) also already have a system in place, through which certain areas are put under protection by member states of these agreements.

The question now is: What will happen to these existing marine protected areas when other or similar areas are established globally under the new treaty? It was thus not surprising to observe that a large number of existing organizations are present at the negotiations and a number of side events were organized on the topic of inter- institutional cooperation.

How much science in BBNJ?

Reference to the importance of best available science and knowledge in the BBNJ process was repeatedly made by delegates in the first week, as well as presenters at side events. New technologies based on satellite images and environmental DNA (eDNA) can be used to track species and provide information on the establishment of marine protected areas, and potentially to scan the sea-floor for DNA of undiscovered marine genetic resources. Various side events highlighted the importance of science for the BBNJ process. The FAO side event on multi-institutional collaboration in ABNJ gave an overview of existing capacity building initiatives and North-South collaborations. The CBD and the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative emphasized the need for new science for the management of area-based management tools in ABNJ.

There seemed to be general agreement on the wording scientific “body”, over scientific “network”, however, no agreement on the role of such a scientific body and its competences. Various states highlighted the importance of a scientific body as an advisory body for states, however, neither with a mandate to identify and establish ABMTs, nor to initiate or conduct EIAs. The room largely agreed that this responsibility should remain with states. Many countries, including Belize, Tuvalu, Fiji, Micronesia and Myanmar highlighted the significance of other forms of knowledge such as traditional and indigenous knowledge to contribute to an effective implementation agreement – a contribution that was welcomed by a number of other states throughout the week and raised in regard to all the different articles of the draft agreement.

Regardless of the progress made so far, much work remains to be done in the second week. Unresolved disagreements will need to be compromised by state delegations in order to find a common ground for the new instrument. The work on certain specifics of all four elements of the agreement will need to be discussed and informal informals are again scheduled throughout the week, apart from the plenary and working group sessions. On the weekend, delegates showed great interest for workshops on MGRs and the science-policy interface in the BBNJ process, where policy-makers and scientists could clarify scientific definitions and identify the process of current pre- and post-cruise data sharing.

At the end of the day, the stakeholders left with a more aligned understanding of the implications of the instrument, however, it also showed that science and policy still talk different languages and there is the need for further exchange.

We are now looking forward to another IGC3 week, hoping that we will get one step closer to finding common ground on the key elements of the BBNJ treaty to conserve and sustainably manage marine biodiversity and ideally, text on how to address and reduce the unequal distribution of marine science, resources and data infrastructures.

This article has been written by Arne Langlet and Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki.