By Matt Elliott, Oceankind
The high seas represent 64% of the world’s oceans and cover nearly half of the surface of the planet.
Migratory marine species such as sharks, tunas, turtles and whales continuously transit through international waters to reach their spawning, feeding and breeding grounds, while the deeper waters of the open ocean are home to a rich diversity of marine life and an incredible array of unique ecosystems.
The biodiversity of the open ocean is considered life on Earth. Yet until March of this year essentially no international legal mechanisms existed to effectively protect these areas and the species within them.
A group of ocean governance bodies had been charged with managing specific activities on the high seas – the International Maritime Organization on shipping, the International Seabed Authority on seabed mining, and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations on fisheries management – yet none of these organizations have the simple task of protecting marine life.
Until March 2023, when the text for the UN High Seas Treaty was, at last, finalized.
The new Treaty provides a pathway for establishing Marine Protected Areas (so-called MPAs) in international waters.
High Seas MPAs are needed to protect marine life in a time of climate change and to help achieve the global target of protecting at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030, as called for in the Global Biodiversity Framework. The Treaty also establishes a process to assess and manage activities in the High Seas that would impact marine life through environmental impact assessments.
Importantly, the treaty also includes provisions to promote the fair sharing of benefits and resources derived from the high seas. Securing this agreement, and who pays for what, were the toughest elements of the negotiations, with heated debates stretching well into the 11th hour.
Although the new Treaty cannot bind organizations, such as fishery management groups to its decisions, it does require that they promote its objectives, which will hopefully result in a more consistent and conservation-aligned approach to ocean management.
Likewise, the adoption of the Treaty will not automatically establish protected areas on the High Seas. However, a new body formed from the Treaty members will aim to establish such protected areas through a process of consensus building and a three-quarters majority vote from the member states.
This body will serve as a platform to meet the interests of authorities that regulate fishing, shipping and mining with the Treaty’s biodiversity protection aims to protect the High Seas. This collaboration, even though it may potentially be long and complex, presents an encouraging path toward improved ocean governance.
Matt Elliott, Oceankind
While we should celebrate the finalized text, the High Seas Treaty is not yet in action, as it still needs to be ratified by 60 countries first. With government leadership, it is hoped the Treaty will be in force in time for the United Nations Ocean Conference in June 2025.
The ocean conservation community will be working in parallel to identify the first generation of high seas protected areas and start building the political will to establish them.
There’s no avoiding the reality that change at this scale takes time, but it promises to generate benefits for generations to come.
Find out more about Oceankind’s mission to improve the health of global ocean ecosystems while supporting the livelihoods of people who rely on them at www.oceankind.org.