Our planet, often referred to as the Blue Planet, relies heavily on the ocean. Covering more than 70% of Earth's surface, the oceans play a crucial role in providing us with food, regulating our climate, and generating the majority of the oxygen we breathe. However, until now, there has been a lack of regulations to protect the areas beyond national shores, known as the high seas. This is where the United Nations High Seas Treaty steps in—a legally binding instrument designed to conserve and sustainably use marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. After more than 20 years of discussions, the treaty has finally been adopted by the UN's 193 Member States.
In this article, we aim to provide a deeper understanding of this treaty, exploring its importance, the roles it can fulfill, and its potential weaknesses.
What are the high seas?
The high seas refer to the open ocean, particularly areas located more than 200 nautical miles from any country's jurisdiction. (Shown dark blue on THIS map.) These expansive and unregulated waters present unique challenges and opportunities.
Why is their protection important?
As mentioned previously, the oceans play a vital role in providing us with food and regulating our climate. However, despite their essential significance in our lives, they remain largely unexplored. It is estimated that 91% of ocean species are still unidentified, showcasing the immense biodiversity that awaits discovery. Additionally, approximately 80% of the ocean floor remains unmapped, leaving a vast portion yet to be explored.
Scientists, along with pharmaceutical companies and other industries, are increasingly interested in harnessing the ocean's potential genetic resources for various applications. These range from cancer treatments to cosmetics, and from minerals to methane-consuming microbes. Given the immense value of the ocean's resources, it is crucial to prevent a "first-come, first-served" scenario, which currently prevails in the absence of an appropriate treaty.
The high seas, which encompass two-thirds of the ocean, remain essentially ungoverned until the implementation of this new treaty.
What is the High Seas Treaty?
The High Seas Treaty primarily focuses on fairness, conservation, and diversity.
It seeks to establish a mechanism that ensures the equitable distribution of profits derived from the discovery of marine genetic resources. If valuable genetic resources or significant biological compounds are found in the deep sea, the treaty emphasizes the need to share the resulting commercial profit equally among nations. Additionally, the treaty aims to provide technology, capacity building, and training to lower-income nations, enabling their participation in scientific missions and development efforts. This is important as higher-income nations currently dominate the high seas due to the substantial resources required for access. Furthermore, the treaty contains provisions based on the polluter-pays principle as well as mechanisms for disputes to keep the oceans cleaner.
The treaty also addresses conservation by creating a process for establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) beyond national jurisdiction - which is named one of the main achievements of the Treaty. These MPAs can be seen as the "national parks" of the high seas, essential for preserving marine habitats and biodiversity. By doing so the agreement now makes it possible to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030. However, challenges remain regarding the protection of MPAs from commercial fishing. The treaty strives to involve all stakeholders in this process, promoting inclusivity, although implementation may pose logistical difficulties.
Furthermore, the treaty places an emphasis on diversity, calling for inclusivity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and indigenous voices. It also acknowledges the unique concerns of small island and archipelago communities. However, it is crucial to recognize that while the treaty makes efforts towards inclusivity, true impact can only be achieved through active implementation.
What are the challenges of the High Seas Treaty?
It is important to acknowledge the potential challenges and limitations of the High Seas Treaty.
One pressing concern is the timeline for its implementation. The treaty has yet to be ratified by at least 60 states, a process that can be time-consuming.
Additionally, despite its significance, the treaty lacks substantial provisions addressing the fishing industry, a major stakeholder in ocean-related matters. This omission reflects the complex dynamics between economic interests, environmental considerations, and geopolitical tensions. It remains crucial to address these issues and ensure that comprehensive measures are in place to protect marine ecosystems and promote sustainable practices across all sectors operating on the high seas.
The new High Seas Treaty serves as a preventative measure rather than a direct solution to acute oceanic problems. Its significance lies in marking the first critical step towards meaningful and shared ocean management. The treaty aims to safeguard the high seas, promote conservation, and ensure fairness in the distribution of benefits. However, the treaty's success depends on collective efforts from governments, organizations, and individuals who actively implement its provisions and advocate for effective ocean governance.
The High Seas Treaty may not provide immediate solutions to urgent crises on the high seas or offer specific details, but it plays a crucial role in establishing a foundation for future collaborations in international waters. It serves as a vital tool for long-term ocean management, setting the stage for sustainable practices and cooperative efforts.
We hope you found this article insightful and gained valuable knowledge.
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The following resources were used in the preparation of this article:
- Deasy, K. (2023). What we know about the new High Seas Treaty. Npj Ocean Sustainability, 2(1), 1-3. https://doi.org/10.1038/s44183-023-00013-x
- Beyond borders: Why new 'high seas' treaty is critical for the world https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/06/113785
- UN high seas treaty is a landmark – but science needs to fill the gaps https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00757-z