The oceans offer a wealth of genetic resources that can be cultured to produce anything from anticancer drugs and painkillers to chemicals used in cosmetics. But who owns those resources, and how they can be equally distributed among countries, remains vague.

The question of governing waters that do not fall under any national jurisdiction makes capitalizing on marine genetic resources difficult, said Marjo Vierros of the United Nations University's Institute of Advanced Studies at a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Vancouver on Friday. 

Sixty-four percent of the world’s oceans are not governed by individual countries, meaning their governance falls under various international treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). This area includes the seabed, ocean floor and the soil beneath them. 

But UNCLOS, which stipulates that these areas should be treated as the common heritage of mankind, was adopted in 1982 at a time before the potential of marine genetic resources was known and does not account for organic material.

This poses a problem for industries seeking to capitalize on genetic resources from marine organisms. 

It takes only a single cell to be able to derive its DNA sequence and then use that sequence for various applications. Those sequences can also be patented, and countries like the U.S., Germany and Japan top the list of 10 countries with 90 percent of the world’s patent claims for marine genetic organisms (despite boasting the world’s longest coastline, Canada claims almost none). 

Part of that disparity is due to the ambiguity surrounding who owns marine biodiversity, says Sophie Arnaud-Haond of the French marine research centre Ifremer. In addition, many of the patents identify only the DNA sequence that is used to develop products, leaving out information on which species the DNA came from and where it was isolated from geographically. That makes tracking which marine organisms are being used, and how they are distributed around the world, nearly impossible. 

UN working groups on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) are examining ways to regulate the use of marine genetic resources. In the meantime, Canada may be missing out on a resource that contributes to industries worth billions of dollars annually.