A chance to heal

Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

The ocean desperately needs the chance to recover from the strains we are putting it under. Right now, we have a once in a generation opportunity to protect it.

After nearly two decades of discussions at the UN, world governments are in the final stages of negotiating a new legally binding treaty that could deliver the mechanisms for the effective protection and management of the high seas that our ocean so urgently needs. This is the first time in nearly 25 years that world governments have gathered to negotiate a global treaty related to the ocean and the first ever to address biodiversity in the high seas – to finally put this global resource under global protection. This treaty, once adopted, will be an implementing agreement to the UN Law of the Sea Convention, for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (often referred to as “BBNJ”). Areas beyond national jurisdiction is a legal term under this Convention that comprises both the high seas (the water column that extends 200 nautical miles beyond a coastal state’s EEZ) and “the Area” which is the seabed floor below. 

UN Photo / Joao Araujo Pinto

After three rounds of treaty negotiations at the UN in 2018-19, a final-slated Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is currently planned for August 2021, but difficult political issues remain that will require heightened leadership in the midst of competing interests, to build bridges and bring this process to successful completion. It is imperative that these long efforts result in an ambitious and robust new treaty that does not simply codify business as usual but is future-proofed and able to address 21st century perils.

It should also be inclusive, embrace transparency, and include provisions that consider the cumulative impacts of multiple human activities on these waters. Any new activities, including new fishing, should be strictly assessed and effectively managed, so that they are not able to emerge and expand outside of any regulation, as is currently the case. A fair and equitable access and benefit-sharing regime for marine genetic resources is paramount, as is the authority of the treaty body to take decisions related to these shared international waters.

Marine Conservation Institute

Providing a mechanism and process for the establishment of high seas marine protected areas (MPAs) is an essential element for inclusion in the new treaty. Currently, no legal mechanism exists to establish comprehensively protected MPAs beyond national boundaries. Globally, only 1.2% of the high seas are highly and fully protected, though scientists and many countries are urging 30% protection by 2030 as the minimum needed to safeguard biodiversity, avoid collapse of fisheries, as well as bolster the ocean’s resilience to climate change. Because they are a global common, belonging to all but the responsibility of no single nation, the only effective way to establish a representative and well connected network of highly and fully protected high seas MPAs is through an international UN treaty. Given that the high seas cover nearly half our planet and benefits all – whether in a land-locked or coastal country, properly protecting it must be a top priority for every one of us.

Michael Aw

Use #OneOceanOnePlanet and #ListenToTheOcean to show your support and find out how you can get involved at highseasalliance.org. The High Seas Alliance is a partnership of over 45 non-governmental organizations and IUCN who have joined together to improve high seas governance, specifically through a legally binding UN treaty.