In the report on oceans and the law of the sea, to be used as a basis for discussion at this session of the Consultative Process, a marine ecosystem is defined as the sum total of marine organisms living in a particular sea area, the interactions between those organisms and the physical environment in which they interact. A vulnerable marine ecosystem could be defined as one that is particularly susceptible to disruption, to damage or even to destruction due to its physical characteristics, the activities and interactions of the organisms therein and the impacts they suffer from human activities and the surrounding environment. While some ecosystems may be fairly resilient and recover quickly from external shocks, others may be fragile and collapse at either slight or repeated stress.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea adopts a broad approach in dealing with ecosystems, requiring special protection, according to the report. While States are under a duty to protect the marine environment and conserve marine life generally, special measures may be needed to protect certain types of ecosystems. The Convention [article 194 (5)] requires States to take the necessary measures to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems, as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.
The Secretary-General notes that the International Maritime Organization’s “Guidelines for the identification and designation of particularly sensitive sea areas” describe “vulnerable marine areas” as areas that require special protection because of their high susceptibility to degradation by natural events or human activities. Additionally, in its report entitled “A Sea of Troubles”, GESAMP (Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection) identified a number of vulnerable areas and systems: coral reefs, wetlands, sea grass beds, coastal lagoons, mangroves, shorelines, watersheds, estuaries, small islands, continental shelves and semi-enclosed seas. Other examples include: habitats of endangered species, spawning and nursery areas, feeding grounds, seamounts, hydrothermal vents and polar regions. Since vulnerability is a function of the specific physical, as well as ecological characteristics of an area, ecosystems that are not generally considered vulnerable may be considered as such in specific locations.
The Secretary-General’s report addresses the various threats to vulnerable marine ecosystems, including land-based activities, overexploitation of fish stocks and destructive fishing practices, sea-based activities, marine scientific research, and global climate change. It also deals with legal and policy frameworks for the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems, and management approaches and tools to protect vulnerable marine and coastal ecosystems.