UN Member states reach agreement on historic High Seas Treaty

Environment | Oceans

By Julia Riopelle, Co-Editor in Chief

Published March 13th, 2023

After decades of discussion and days of negotiation, over 100 UN member states have come to a ground-breaking multilateral agreement to protect 30% of international waters by 2030.

UN member states have agreed to commit to the High Seas Treaty to the highest political level, in order to combat the anthropogenically driven degradation of marine environments that have been amplifying the impacts of climate change and the biodiversity crisis.

Marine protected areas also offer the protection of important foraging and breeding areas of migrating seabirds. | Fer Nando / Unsplash

Historically, with so many parties involved, the path towards implementing the High Seas Treaty has been difficult. Intergovernmental negotiations had been ongoing for the past five years, with the fifth session of negotiations being suspended without the establishment of the Treaty in 2022.

In order to unlock the potential benefits of the High Seas Treaty, the UN negotiations in New York worked to overcome the long term barriers, such as the politicisation of science used to back national agenda and institutional fragmentation. The negotiations wrapped up on the evening of March 5th, with over 100 Member States having signed the treaty.

The High Seas Treaty offers an important opportunity to implement a clear and legally-binding instrument, which aims to effectively achieve the conservation and sustainability goals set out by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), as well as offers a framework that fosters collaboration and cooperation between relevant stakeholders. The last agreement regarding the fair use of ocean resources was signed in 1982 and has shown to be insufficient in protecting marine biodiversity.

Nearly two-thirds of Earth’s oceans are in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJs)—also known as the ‘high seas’—constituting 94% of the ocean’s volume and countless vulnerable marine ecosystems. However, currently only around 1% of the high seas are protected and only 20% of the seafloor has been mapped.

ABNJs are crucial areas in need for effective conservation management, and whilst there have been a series of existing treaties to try to regulate resource-intensive activities within them, fragmented legals frameworks have left its biodiversity vulnerable to the growing climate-related threats, overfishing, deep-sea mining, marine pollution and more.

Illegal fishing is estimated at 11 to 26 million tonnes per year. | Jean Wimmerlin / Unsplash

One of the proposals of the High Seas Treaty is the establishment and management of area-based management tools (ABMTs) and marine protected areas (MPAs), in order to achieve both conservation and sustainability objectives.

Context-specific management tools could utilise up-to-date biodiversity data to outline clear and legally-backed guidelines on the type of species that could be fished, total allowable catch, maximum sustainable yield, as well as size catch limits. Additionally, it could limit the use of certain fishing methods depending on the status of the species populations in a certain area, such as deep-sea trawling, long-lines or non-selective fishing gear.

Illegal fishing is estimated at 11 to 26 million tonnes per year, much of which slips under the radar of regional fisheries management organisations. Another proposal of the High Seas Treaty, which calls for the standardisation of regular environmental impact assessments, offers a robust legal framework that creates restrictions for untracked fishing activity in previously unregulated areas.

Regular impact assessments will also inform subsequent decision-making, alter current practices and streamline improved management policies. Additionally, updated fisheries management will positively affect all species within the ecosystem, such as through healthy prey population sizes or avoiding by-catch.

The treaty also emphasises the need for transparency when researching marine genetic resources in ABNJs. Marine genetic material is not only an important source of information to inform the conservation status of marine biodiversity, but also holds the potential of commercialisation.

Jellyfish in open water. | Grant Thomas / Ocean Image Bank

Therefore, creating equitable access to genetic information within ABNJs across all UN member states, particularly through its proposed funding mechanism, would assist developing countries in accessing its resources and create new financial incentives across all member states to protect its biodiversity. On Thursday, the EU announced that they will be investing 820 million euros towards ocean conservation.

It is hoped that the High Seas Treaty will fulfil its diplomatic benefits, by increasing ocean ecosystem resilience and carbon storage capacity, as its legal framework aims to assist participating parties in achieving their climate change commitments.

It remains to be seen whether the establishment of these 30x30 MPAs will constitute strictly ‘no-take’ areas or whether there will be context-specific governance frameworks put in place to allow the sustainable use of their resources.

Featured Image: Hannes Klostermann | Ocean Image Bank

De Santo E.M. , Ásgeirsdóttir Á., Barros-Platiau A., et al. (2019) Protecting biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction: An earth system governance perspective. Earth System Governance. Volume 2.

European Union (2022) ‘A High Ambition Coalition on Biodiversity beyond National Jurisdiction Protecting the Ocean: Time for Action.’ European Union. Available at: https://oceans-and-fisheries.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2022-01/Declaration-High-Ambition-Coalition-on-Biodiversity-beyond-National-Jurisdiction-ocean_en.pdf [Accessed February 5th, 2023]

Harvard (2023) ‘BBNJ Treaty.’ Harvard University. Available at: https://bbnj-mgr.fas.harvard.edu/bbnj-treaty [Accessed February 5th, 2023]

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