The 1972 World Heritage Convention is founded on the premise of international cooperation. It recognizes that some places are of irreplaceable value to humankind, and signifies the commitment of all nations to support their protection. This global covenant is uniquely suited to facilitate conservation of the world’s ocean, where connectedness is a fact of life. Recognizing that World Heritage had a key role to play in ocean conservation, the World Heritage Marine Programme was established in 2005 with the goal to ensure the protection of marine places of Outstanding Universal Value.

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Since the Programme was established, 16 new marine sites have been added to the World Heritage List, more than doubling the surface area protected in a little over 10 years. Today, it encompasses 49 sites in 37 countries that together make up about 10% by surface area of all the world’s marine protected areas. This worldwide system now stretches from the tropics to the Arctic, including icons like the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) and Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) as well as lesser-known treasures like the Iceland’s Surtsey and Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park in the Philippines.

With our oceans facing existential threats, the stakes are higher than ever. The managers that oversee these sites are our planet’s best line of defense in a time of unprecedented change. Collectively, they are confronting every imaginable challenge, from industrialization to invasive lionfish, but each has the backing of the World Heritage Convention and a support system of the world’s best and brightest scientists and stewards. International cooperation can help individual sites build on successes and avoid costly mistakes. For the past decade, the World Heritage Marine Programme has worked to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and resources across this community, creating a global network of conservation leaders that is increasingly equipped to navigate a changing ocean.

This international cooperation has produced notable successes, from advances in low impact tourism in Glacier Bay and the West Norwegian Fjords to agreements that ensure migratory birds along major international flyway routes. Whales and sharks will have safer breeding and feeding grounds as they travel the world as sites increasingly cooperate to protect them. Just this year, an alliance was created between seven sites in five Latin American countries that will benefit wide ranging species like sharks, tuna, swordfish, and leatherback turtles travelling between these World Heritage sites.

“The 1972 World Heritage Convention is uniquely suited to facilitate conservation of the world’s oceans, since the actions of individual nations have ripple effects well beyond their boundaries in a dynamic world connected by currents and migratory species. Moreover, international cooperation is the very foundation of the Convention. Recognizing that we had a key role to play in marine conservation, UNESCO established the World Heritage Marine Programme in 2005. The programme’s mandate is to promote effective conservation of existing and potential marine areas of Outstanding Universal Value, helping them thrive for generations to come.” indicated Dr. Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, in the preface to the publication.

Looking ahead at the next decade, the World Heritage Marine Programme will be focused on helping these ocean gems adapt to a changing climate and eliminate illegal and unsustainable fishing. Recent widespread bleaching events have awakened the world to the peril of our ocean treasures, but climate change wears many faces. World Heritage marine sites should be like time capsules that show what a healthy ocean looks like. In the past decade, many have created large no-take zones to allow natural systems and recover and thrive. In the coming years, the Programme will work to build on these successes.

But large swaths of sea host some of the most fascinating ocean treasures but do not yet benefit from World Heritage protection. Perhaps the most important of these areas is the High Seas that lie beyond national jurisdiction. This vast stretch of open ocean contains wonders we have only begun to discover. Unprecedented ice loss and advances in technology have opened more of the High Seas to shipping, fishing and industrial development, and it is imperative that we conserve the gems of this global commons before they are lost. The World Heritage Centre identified five sites of potential Outstanding Universal Value in the High Seas earlier this year. Together with its partners, the World Heritage Marine Programme will be working on the practical steps to facilitate their protection in the coming years.

As Ocean Elder Sven Lindblad said at the most recent World Heritage Marine Managers conference, our ocean is the real world bank. Its resources sustain humankind, from the oxygen we breathe to the food we eat and the economy that employs us. The 49 marine sites on the World Heritage List are reminders of what can be accomplished when working together to conserve our common heritage. The stakes have never been higher, but neither has the public and political will to save the seas. The World Heritage Centre looks forward to working together in the next decade to grow both the reach and effectiveness of the World Heritage Marine Programme so future generations will still be able to enjoy the oceans’ irreplaceable assets of humanity.

This publication was made possible thanks to the support of the UNESCO Netherlands Funds-in-Trust and ongoing support of the Swiss watch manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre and the UNESCO Flanders Funds-in-Trust. 

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