In the late hours of the 4th March, after almost 1.5 days of non-stop negotiation, the world’s governments meeting at the United Nations in New York finally agreed on a Treaty text to protect the High Seas, or as it is officially known, for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). Applause broke out in the crowded UN conference room with smiles of relief and tears of joy on tired faces when the President of the Conference Rena Lee announced, “The ship has reached the shore”, confirming after a rollercoaster two weeks this historic win that will help address the many governance gaps that have plagued the ocean for decades.
Progress moves at snail pace in international environmental governance. The High Seas Treaty has been almost two decades in the making from the time it was first raised, to its final agreement. This included five years of negotiations that were not aided by the global health pandemic that pressed pause on almost all international negotiations. However, boosted by the wind in multilateral sails from the recently agreed Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and the 30% ocean protection target by 2030, governments were able to find enough common ground to conclude at this third so-called final meeting.
Why are the high seas important?
The high seas, the international waters that lie beyond countries’ national waters, constitute 64% of the world ocean, and cover nearly half of the planet. This area is one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on Earth. Many marine species, such as whales, tunas, sharks and turtles, spend much of their lives on the High Seas, migrating through the ocean from feeding to spawning and breeding grounds. This vast open-ocean and its sea bottom are not devoid of life, but are in fact home to fascinating deep-sea environments such as huge underwater mountain ranges and seamounts that are teeming with life. This ecologically vital area is among the least understood parts of the planet. In fact, more people have ventured into outer space than to the deepest depths of our ocean, and more is known about the surface of the Moon than about the deep seabed of the High Seas.
Despite being home to critical ecosystems, only 1.5% of the High Seas has been protected, leaving these areas vulnerable to exploitation. For most of the High Seas that are part of the global commons, there were no clear rules on how to effectively protect these areas. It was unclear how the existing patchwork of fragmented ocean governance of existing bodies dealing with different mandates - primarily exploitation - would coordinate among themselves to protect marine life.
But this has now just changed!
What does this new high seas Treaty do?
With this new Treaty, ocean governance has been given a significant upgrade. It now sets out a new framework and clear process on how to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in the High Seas, which will be very important to achieve the goal of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 that scientists say is essential to secure a healthy ocean for now and the future. It also establishes a Conference of Parties as the decision-making body that can vote, for example on MPAs, which avoids the paralysing effect of consensus-finding. The Treaty also gives the international community a greater say in decisions regarding new activities that could harm High Seas marine biodiversity, through its provisions surrounding Environmental Impact Assessments. To support developing countries effectively implement the Treaty it includes a strong component on enhancing and building capacity and technology transfer, as well as committing to establish a mechanism for new and additional funding.
One of the most heated discussion topics was around regulations on the access and sharing of benefits of marine genetic resources (MGRs). These are the genetic material of plant, animal or microbes and include their digital version (Digital Sequence Information - DSI), and derivatives that have attracted a lot of interest from science and industry to develop new drugs or cosmetics. As part of these new provisions, countries that exploit MGRs will need to channel part of their profits into a global fund.
While the new Treaty will not be able to bind existing organisations such as fisheries bodies to its decisions, it does require its parties to promote the Treaty’s objectives when participating in these other bodies, including adopting relevant measures to support MPAs. This hopefully adds an additional layer of political pressure on countries to walk the walk in the different fora they participate in.
What next? Adoption, ratification and implementation
As the final Treaty text was adopted so late in the meeting, there is now a process of “legal scrubbing”, where lawyers comb through the text to ensure there are no errors. It will then be translated into all the UN languages, and in the next couple of months (date still to be decided) governments will meet to formally adopt the text.
Following adoption, 60 countries need to ratify the Treaty before it can enter into force. We need to ensure the current political momentum is not lost, and urge governments to ratify the Treaty as soon as possible. This is where the 52 countries that make up the High Ambition Coalition for the High Seas that was created last year as a vehicle to boost ambition, can play an important role in leading ratification action. The next United Nations Ocean Conference in June 2025 in Nice, France, is an ideal milestone for governments to rally around to ensure the Treaty comes into force at this point. At the same time, priority High Seas areas need to be scoped out and protection proposals developed for when the Treaty “goes live”, so we lose no further time in protecting marine life.
This journey to get to a new global Treaty for the High Seas has been long, and not always smooth sailing. But while it is by no means the final destination, it is definitely a hopeful spot along the way of ensuring a healthy vital ocean for future generations. We should all celebrate a little.
About the Author
Nathalie Rey has 25 years of experience campaigning on environmental issues, in particular international ocean conservation policy issues for non-profit organisations including Greenpeace International and Ocean United. She has wide experience of developing and delivering campaign strategies, advocacy work, engagement in international political processes and working as part of coalitions. She is currently working on the campaigns to increase protection of Antarctica's Southern Ocean and also the High Seas.
This blog has been written as part of our Turning the Tide: systems thinking for a sustainable ocean project. Join our dedicated mailing list to stay up to date on future project activities and hear about ways to collaborate.