Worldwide shipping traffic has increased 300% since 1992, and this growing industry does not leave World Heritage marine sites immune to its impact.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO)—the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships—can provide special protections for particularly vulnerable areas. The World Heritage Marine Programme has been working closely together with both Mauritania and the Philippines over the past years in the lead up to the official launch at last week’s IMO meeting.

The IMO met in London from 11 to 15 May 2015, and the World Heritage Marine Programme was there to support the governments of the Philippines and Mauritania in obtaining better protection against maritime pollution for their respective World Heritage sites. Preparation of the full application dossier and preparatory negotiations with IMO members are now commencing in view of obtaining the actual designation of the respective marine World Heritage sites.

The London-based IMO can designate places that are recognized for globally significant marine ecology as “Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas” (PSSA) to reduce their vulnerability to damage from international maritime activities. Today World Heritage sites comprise, or protect waters adjacent to, six of the 14 PSSAs worldwide, including: Papahānaumokuākea (USA), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia), Galápagos Islands (Ecuador), Everglades National Park (USA), Wadden Sea (Denmark, Germany, Netherlands) and the Great Barrier Reef (Australia).

The World Heritage Committee recognizes the potential threats posed by increased shipping activity and is working with World Heritage sites to secure special protections where needed most urgently. In 2011, the World Heritage Committee, in Decision 35COM 7B.17, urged the Philippines to expedite its application for special protections for the Sulu Sea. In 2014, the World Heritage Committee, in Decision 38COM 7B.62, requested that the Government of Mauritania submit a request to designate the Banc d’Arguin region as a PSSA.

Following several groundings in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park last year, the Philippine government officially launched its application for PSSA status of its World Heritage Site during a special event at last week’s IMO meeting.

If successful, Banc d’Arguin National Park with its unique but fragile marine ecosystem and migratory bird population would be the first PSSA on the African continent. Mr. Babana M’hamed, Director of Mauritania’s Merchant Navy, officially launched his Governments intention to apply for PSSA designation for the waters adjacent to the Banc d’Arguin National Park.

The Australian government also presented its application to extend the Great Barrier Reef PSSA to cover key parts of the Coral Sea

Click here for more information about PSSAs.