High seas, high stakes, high time

The High Seas are full of life. Yet, only 1.3% of them are protected. In March, world leaders will have a once in a lifetime chance to change that at the United Nations in New York.

Words by Fiona Curtin
Photographs by Andy Mann, Cristina Mittermeier, Jose Alejandro Alvarez, Rodolphe Holler, and the Schmidt Ocean Institute

Everyone knows that we live on a blue planet. But how many people realise that nearly half of our planet is beyond the reach of any enforceable law or governance? The international waters of the High Seas, that lie outside any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), make up 64% of our global ocean and cover 46% of Earth’s surface. And the reality of these vast, deep ocean realms is far removed from the endless grey-blue nothingness we gaze at from airplane windows. They contain a vibrant, awe-inspiring alternate world of hidden wonders. A supersized world where we find our planet’s highest mountains, deepest canyons, most important carbon sinks, and its biggest creatures that live the longest and travel the furthest. 

Yet one thing that is not supersized is the protection we afford them: just 1.3% of the High Seas is protected, compared to 17% of the land. The High Seas has the fewest rules and even fewer ways to enforce them. Unbelievably, after decades of environmental agreements and in the face of global climate and nature crises that cannot be resolved without a healthy ocean, we still have not reached an agreement on how to safeguard the precious life and habitats of our planet’s last great wilderness.

In March 2022, there is a once in a lifetime chance to change that. Representatives of the world’s governments are scheduled to gather at the United Nations in New York to negotiate the final terms of a new High Seas Treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (the notorious BBNJ). It’s a high stakes moment for the High Seas because this is far from a done deal, and a weak, watered-down agreement could do more harm than good.

“These treaty talks are the first time in 40 years that governments are negotiating a treaty for the ocean and the first time ever to protect marine biodiversity,” says Peggy Kalas of the High Seas Alliance. “We all need a healthy High Seas and we all need a robust, ambitious High Seas Treaty to safeguard the future of our planet.”

The High Seas connects us all. It’s the backdrop to humanity’s long history of seafaring, discovery, migration and mythology. It nurtures the iconic species that criss-cross the globe. Creatures who visit our beaches and that we associate with the shores and the shallows – like sea turtles, corals, and even penguins – also venture hundreds of miles out to sea. And the hurricanes that lash islands and coasts first swell up far out in the open ocean. As our leaders struggle to find a pathway to limit global heating to 1.5oC, it’s worth remembering that, without the ocean absorbing 90% of the extra heat and a third of the carbon we produce, our planet would have turned into an unliveable hellscape years ago. Instead, the ocean is our greatest climate ally, and the ancient untouched ecosystems of the deep sea are a treasure trove for scientists studying changes in Earth’s climate and chemistry over the centuries. The High Seas makes our blue planet work. But we are not working for the High Seas.

For a long time, the High Seas was immune to human impacts; too remote and too big for even us to spoil. But no longer. Fishing, shipping, drilling, plastic, and pollution are all taking their toll, while accelerating climate change is making the seas warmer, less oxygenated, and more acidic, all of which pose an existential threat to marine biodiversity. That’s why a strong High Seas Treaty is so essential. And that’s why the treaty must include the mechanism for establishing and enforcing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in international waters – something for which there is currently no legal framework, leaving the High Seas exposed to exploitation.

Imagine a future where the ocean is protected, the sea life we love is thriving, and humanity shares the bounty of marine resources. To show what we can gain if we protect the High Seas, the High Seas Alliance is uncovering the hidden natural wonders in global ocean hotspots that could be among the first MPAs created under a new High Seas Treaty, like these three revealed below.

Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges – steppingstones through history

Deep in the waters of the southeast Pacific lies a mountain range of 110 volcanic peaks that stretches nearly 3,000 km and teems with spectacular wildlife. The High Seas around the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges provide a critical habitat for more than 80 threatened or endangered species, at least 23 species of whales, 13 species of dolphins, and three species of eared seals. Many of the creatures that shelter here are found nowhere else on Earth, like the charismatic Juan Fernández fur seal that was hunted to the brink of extinction by the fur trade and only rediscovered in the 1960s. For millennia, these waters have also been a vital migration corridor for endangered sea turtles and countless other species – including humans. 

Separated from the South American mainland by the rich, cold waters of the Humboldt Current and the yawning abyss of the Atacama Trench, the submarine summits of Salas y Gómez and Nazca are a part of the ancient “Pacific Octopus” route that connects people across this great ocean. Thousands of years ago, Polynesian Islanders and other seafarers used this hidden landscape to guide their epic voyages of migration and discovery, a maritime heritage that is uniquely preserved and celebrated by the Rapa Nui people on nearby Easter Island. Today, the chain of mountains remains culturally important, but they also play a key role in everybody’s future as the plankton-rich upwellings over the ridges, where sharks, turtles and seabirds gather to forage, act as a giant carbon sink helping to mitigate climate change.

Most of the underwater mountains are yet to be explored, but with every expedition to these mysterious marine steppingstones scientists are discovering new life forms – as well as ancient shipwrecks and historic relics. Recent explorations documented one of our planet’s deepest light-dependent marine ecosystems, replete with lifeforms that are both unknown to science and endemic to this region. Far beneath the waves, secret gardens of slow-growing corals and gorgonians flourish in some of the clearest waters on Earth, providing a home for commercial species – from swordfish to jack mackerel – that help feed millions of people. But only if we protect it. 

For centuries, the isolation of the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges shielded them from harm, but today the tentacles of human destruction are encroaching. Industrial fishing and deep-sea mining are eyeing the riches of these reclusive ridges and, if we want to keep them ecologically intact, we need to act now. Deep-water trawling has already destroyed coral and seabed habitats that take thousands of years to grow, and iconic ocean life is being taken as bycatch. Animals that escape the nets can fall victim to the floating plastic trash drawn to the area by the South Pacific Gyre. But perhaps most dangerous of all is the risk that the cobalt, manganese, and other valuable mineral deposits found on the seafloor here could soon attract deep-sea mining – leading to wholesale ecosystem decimation. So far, no mining contracts have been issued, but none of the area is officially closed to mining either: it’s ripe for exploitation.

The ridges are at a crossroads. Right now, we have a time-sensitive window of opportunity to protect these pristine waters before the chance is lost forever. But there’s a problem. Chile and Peru have extended some protection to areas in their EEZs, but 73% of the seamounts are in international waters and there is currently no way to protect this mountain range and its matchless biodiversity. By permanently closing the area to fishing and mining and establishing a High Seas MPA through a new UN High Seas Treaty, we can secure the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges for ourselves, for the species that live there, and for future generations. That’s why the Coral Reefs on the High Seas Coalition chose this area for the first of its scientific expeditions aimed at generating the evidence base needed to advance international awareness and action for fragile High Seas ecosystems. 

Deep-sea biologist Dr Daniel Wagner, who in 2021 was part of a team of scientists who performed the first ever survey of deep-sea species on both ends of the ridges, warns that: “In an instant, trawling or mining can wipe out millennia-old corals and rob us of precious species before they are even discovered. But, also in an instant, we can decide to protect them before it is too late. If the people charged with negotiating the treaty could see what I have seen, I believe they would choose to defend the deep.” Thanks to the incredible pictures and film taken during recent expeditions, we can all now catch a glimpse of the vortex of life that thrives in the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges. And treaty negotiators cannot claim ignorance if they fail to protect them.

Photographs by Andy Mann, Cristina Mittermeier, Jose Alejandro Alvarez, Rodolphe Holler, and the Schmidt Ocean Institute

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Issue 23
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This feature appears in ISSUE 23: High Seas of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 23
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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