High Seas

UN agrees on 'historic' High Seas Treaty

After decades of negotiations, the UN has reached an agreement on the High Seas Treaty to give better protection to international waters.

Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photograph by Brook Peterson/Ocean Image Bank

After decades of talks, United Nations member states have finally agreed on a High Seas Treaty to give protection to some parts of the High Seas.


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. Nearly half of our planet is beyond the reach of any enforceable law or governance. It is estimated that just 1.3% of the High Seas is protected, compared to 17% of the land.


In March 2022, representatives of the world’s governments gathered 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 BBNJ).


Unfortunately, member states failed to reach a consensus. An additional round of meetings was held in August of 2022, but still to no avail. “Despite an extra two-week negotiation session, countries ran out of time yet again, stalling over differences on sharing marine genetic resources,” commented an article by China Dialogue.


A day after the deadline for talks in the most recent round of negotiations had passed, Rena Lee of Singapore, the conference president, announced at the UN headquarters in New York that the treaty had been agreed. Until now, no legal framework existed to protect the High Seas. She said: “In Singapore, we like to go on learning journeys, and this has been the learning journey of a lifetime.”


The historic treaty will act as legal framework to establish marine protected areas in parts of the ungoverned High Seas. It will further see future conferences of the parties (Cop) that will make it possible for UN member states to be held to account. Following the positive news, many campaigners said that the treaty is crucial to enforce the 30×30 pledge made by countries at the UN biodiversity conference in December. It seeks to protect 30% of the ocean and land by 2030.


Charles Clover, Blue Marine Foundation’s executive director, said: “Huge congratulations are due to the negotiators for a lot of hard work [on the treaty]. The treaty provides a framework for creating MPAs on the High Seas – 64 per cent of the world ocean, 43 per cent of the Earth’s surface – for the first  time. The treaty is essential if we are to protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.  The negotiators have resolved the stickiest issues, for once, in their decade of talks so countries don’t have an excuse not to deliver now.”

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European commissioner for the environment, ocean and fisheries, called the positive High Seas Treaty negotiations between 193 nations an “historic moment for the ocean”.


Rebecca Hubbard, director of the High Seas Alliance, commented: “Following a two-week-long rollercoaster of a ride of negotiations and superhero efforts in the last 48 hours, governments reached agreement on key issues that will advance protection and better management of marine biodiversity in the high seas.”


It is now up to governments and individuals to make sure that the agreement is adopted and actually protects the biodiversity of the High Seas. Despite the treaty being a breakthrough agreement that wants to protect 30% of international waters by 2030, it still has a long way to go as the level of protection these areas will get is still undecided.


Clover added: “There will of course be a delay while the requisite number of countries ratify the treaty but as the negotiators have given the task to existing UN institutions- such as regional fisheries management organisations – there really is no excuse for not starting immediately on site selection.  There are some very rich areas that need protecting, for instance the Sargasso Sea, the Lost City and the Walvis Ridge in the Atlantic and the Thermal Dome in the eastern central Pacific, the last is a hotspot for sharks, turtles and all sorts of creatures so will be high on anyone’s list.  This is a great milestone for ocean protection. Let’s get on and implement it.”


First, it will have to be formerly adopted at a later session. It will only ‘go live’ once enough countries have signed up and legally passed the framework within their own countries. Only then can member states begin to practically implement and manage the new measures.


Russia, for example, voiced concerns over the final text. Furthermore, many conservationists mentioned that the current treaty could be further improved. As an example: Bodies that already regulate activities such as fisheries, shipping and deep-sea mining can continue to do so without assessing the environmental impact as laid out by the new treaty.


If you want to find out more about the first round of High Seas Treaty negotiations and the importance of the high seas, read Issue 23’s cover story.

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here


Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photograph by Brook Peterson/Ocean Image Bank

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