Lenfest Ocean Program

Supporting Science and Communicating Results

Fact Sheet

Advancing the Convention on Biological Diversity’s EBSA Process

Seahorse in the Sargasso Sea

Seahorse in the Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso Sea is one of 20 candidate EBSAs described in the Western Atlantic Ocean, including the Wider Caribbean.

© J-P Rouja for LookBermuda

In Brief: An international process to inform high-seas conservation and management is at a critical juncture, according to a study in Marine Policy supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program. Experts have assembled detailed information on 172 “ecologically or biologically significant areas” (EBSAs), but policy disagreements have delayed further consideration. The authors recommend that nations find a way to convey public support for this valuable information and make it easier to access and update.

An Effort to Inform High-Seas Conservation and Management

In 2006, the almost 200 governments that are party to an international agreement—the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)— endorsed “effective conservation” of at least 10 percent of the oceans. In an effort to support progress toward that target, the Parties began a process to describe marine areas that are more ecologically important than surrounding areas, known as EBSAs. Although this effort was originally focused on the high seas—the waters outside the legal control of any nation—it has been broadened to include areas within the waters of some nations.

EBSA Criteria and Workshops

Experts have identified seven EBSA criteria and, starting in 2011, a series of seven workshops have been held to develop candidate EBSAs by applying these criteria to specific regions of the ocean. (The workshops covered the Northeast and Southeast Atlantic and the Caribbean/Western Mid-Atlantic; the North, Southwest, and Eastern Tropical/Temperate Pacific; and the Southern Indian Ocean. Workshops on the Arctic and two other regions are planned for 2014.) Each workshop included experts from nations in the region and outside experts. Together, they examined large volumes of data—from ocean temperature fronts to species distributions and abundances. To date, they have compiled descriptions of 172 candidate EBSAs. The workshops focused on scientific descriptions of the ecosystems, not management or policy options.

Next Steps and Challenges

Each workshop produced a report that the CBD Parties considered. The CBD passed a summary of these reports on to the United Nations and other relevant authorities, and the summaries are available in a set of online documents (click here for the main summary). However, the searchable online repository created to share information on candidate EBSAs has not been launched. Furthermore, the reports have not contributed significantly to policy discussions because the Parties have not offered public support for them, potentially making them easier for governments and international bodies to ignore. Overtly, this lack of support is because of disagreement over who, if anyone, can officially “endorse” the workshop reports and what endorsement would mean. However, other issues may be behind this dispute, according to the Marine Policy paper. In particular, some nations may be concerned that high-seas EBSAs are a first step in the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs), which would restrict the rights of nations to access resources in those areas. Alternatively, some nations may be withholding support over the issue of how to share the benefits of marine genetic resources from the high seas.


The authors argue that the EBSA workshop reports are a valuable store of information useful for a range of purposes, of which the designation of protected areas is just one. Other purposes include targeting areas for bycatch reduction or for increased research and monitoring. They recommend that the CBD Parties find a way to convey support for the scientific value of these results without implying support for any specific policy, and that they provide access to EBSA information through an online repository that can be easily searched and updated.


Dunn, D. C., Ardron, J., Bax, N., Bernal, P., Cleary, J., Cresswell, I., Donnelly, B., Dunstan, P., Gjerde, K., Johnson, D., Kaschner, K., Lascelles, B., Rice, J., von Nordheim, H., Wood, L., Halpin, P. 2014. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas: Origins, development, and current status. Marine Policy. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2013.12.002.

This paper is part of a special issue of Marine Policy on areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ).

The main summary document for the seven EBSA workshops can be found at:


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