Just like the small patch of shared lawn at the bottom of two neighbouring driveways – unclaimed territory which both houses want to picnic on, but neither wants to mow or maintain – a similar standoff has been taking place between global leaders for the past 20 years, but instead of a two-metre-squared section of grass, they’ve been passing the hot potato on two-thirds of the planet’s ocean.
This enormous body of water is known as the “high seas.”
Where are the high seas? These are the international waters which lie more than 200 nautical miles (370km) beyond any country’s borders or jurisdiction.
Out of sight, out of mind, polluted, overfished and overmined; this vast expanse of forgotten ocean has been both neglected and exploited for decades.
Some have even referred to these unowned seas as the “wild west of the oceans.”
However, after 20 years of deadlock and two weeks of tense negotiations at the UN’s marine biodiversity conference in New York City, it was announced late on Saturday evening that all 193 UN member countries had agreed on a text for a legally-binding “High Seas Treaty” and finally accepted collective responsibility for the overlooked marine environments of transboundary international waters.
“The High Seas Treaty opens the path for humankind to finally provide protection to marine life across vast swathes of the ocean,” stated the Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Dr Bruno Oberle.
When the news of this historic global pact reached the conference hall, it was met with a standing ovation from the relieved and exhausted delegates in attendance, with the summit’s president, Rena Lee, emotionally declaring:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore.”
Nurturing no man’s land
Many of the global leaders, government officials, civil activists, environmental NGOs, academic institutions and scientists that participated in discussions at the summit have hailed the long-awaited High Seas Treaty an important “breakthrough.”
“This action is a victory for multilateralism,” declared UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in a statement praising delegates for their “perseverance” in finally coming to the two-decades-in-the-making agreement.
The treaty outlines how all 193 UN member countries will work together to protect ocean ecosystems, conserve vital marine biodiversity, combat environmental degradation and proactively mitigate the impacts of climate change, pollution and unsustainable use of international waters.
Waters which have absorbed 23% of the planet’s CO2 emissions over the past decade.
“It is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” stated UN Chief Guterres.
By signing this High Seas Treaty, the endorsing countries would confirm they are “desiring to act as stewards of the ocean in areas beyond national jurisdiction on behalf of present and future generations.”
At least in principle – but what does this mean in practical, political, environmental, economic and legal terms?
What does it mean to be a “steward of the ocean?”
In alignment with both the UN’s 2030 Agenda and the Global Biodiversity Framework, the 54-page High Seas Treaty lists a total of 70 different articles which together map out the exact policies and parameters of the UN’s proposed ocean conservation plan.
Failure to fulfil the treaty’s mandate will constitute a breach of international law for party states, with the exception of “warship, military aircraft or naval auxiliary,” which are exempt.
As well as an extensive list of specific provisos, to help countries navigate the adoption of the treaty and thereafter, the text also provides a matrix of overarching principles, which together must be met with “universal participation,” international cooperation and with “the interests and needs of humankind as a whole” in the driving seat.
Distilled, the principles encompass the following ideas:
- The freedoms of the high seas must be maintained.
- The sovereignty and territorial integrity of states should be preserved.
- The explicit link between the natural world and human wellbeing must be accounted for.
- Rather than being exploited, international waters should be preserved for future generations.
- Equity and inclusivity must be embedded in all ocean activities and conservation efforts.
- The rights of Indigenous Peoples must always be respected.
- Efforts are to be informed by both science and the traditional expertise of Indigenous Peoples.
- Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and developing countries (both coastal and landlocked) must be supported by developed countries in their sustainable transition.
- All disputes must be settled by “peaceful means.”
With these principles in mind, the High Seas Treaty goes on to outline how ocean preservation will be carried out at the national and international level, with four of the main takeaways being:
One of the freedoms that the treaty mentions must be protected at all times, is the freedom to conduct marine scientific research in international waters.
This is good news given the wealth of rare organisms and bioactive compounds that continue to be discovered in deep sea hydrothermal vents; microbes and materials which often have unique antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities, making them ideal cosmetic ingredients and, in some cases, possibly even candidates to help treat cancer!
The second piece of good news is that the High Seas Treaty states that scientific research conducted in shared waters must remain open to involvement from scientists of any party state, with special consideration for scientists from developing countries.
Third, the data from high seas scientific endeavours should be made open-access and pooled into a shared database.
And finally the benefits which arise from scientific discoveries in international waters, whether that be financial gain or vital intelligence, must be shared fairly and equitably amongst all party countries, whether island, coastal or landlocked in nature.
Given the breadth of resources available in the High Seas, these benefits could possibly involve anything from the DNA sequences unravelled through genetic sequencing of marine life to the lucrative extraction of ocean resources for the development of cosmetic, food or pharmaceutical products.
The 30×30 pledge to conserve 30% of nature by 2030 has become a common motif of environmental summits lately.
The High Seas Treaty supports the the Global Biodiversity Framework‘s 30×30 pledge by providing the framework to place large portions of the planet’s oceans under protection as “Marine Protected Areas” (MPAs).
What constitutes an MPA? These areas will be identified based on a set of criteria which involves cultural, economic, ecological, evolutionary and social factors, e.g., the presence of endangered species, discovery of unique biodiversity or perceived vulnerability to climate change could all possibly constitute MPA eligibility.
Related Articles: Landmark High Seas Treaty Agreed, Ushering in New Rules for Two-Thirds of the Ocean | Good Sign for Ocean Recovery: Whales May be Coming Back to the UK | France to Ban Deep-Sea Mining: What It Implies, and Why It’s Important | The Ocean Got so Loud That Dolphins Must Now ‘Shout’ Over Noise Pollution
Therefore, party countries are encouraged to adopt an integrated, ecosystem-centric approach to the conservation of protected areas, building resilience and providing a safe haven for threatened marine life to recover.
However, alongside widespread praise for the 30×30 pledge, some have also raised concerns surrounding its scientific robustness and potential to infringe on the human and territorial rights of Indigenous communities.
Sustainable use of marine environments
Before countries are given the green light to go ahead with any new endeavours in international waters, they will now be required to conduct environmental impact assessments to evaluate, manage and mitigate the potentially negative fallout of their plans.
This ruling is underpinned by both the “precautionary” and “polluter pays” principles, which advocate for a cautious and avoidant approach to high-stakes polluting activities, placing the hefty costs of managing and mitigating pollution onto the polluter’s own shoulders.
The treaty also states that close attention must be paid to prevent pollution from national territories bleeding out into international waters.
The inclusion of this section on sustainable use of marine environments could possibly impact activities such as fishing, shipping and mining in the high seas, with the latter two being particularly controversial talking points at present.
For example, deep-sea mining of rare earth metals which underpin renewable technologies has been identified as a source of pollution – an unfortunate catch-22 – and dolphins’ wellbeing is being severely impeded by increased underwater noise pollution from shipping as industrialisation and globalisation continue to expand exponentially.
The treaty covers how, as well as the benefits yielded by scientific research, the know-how on marine sustainability technologies and best practices must also be disseminated between all party countries, to ensure the activities within the agreement are undertaken inclusively, equitably and effectively.
The report states that specific support should be given to developing countries to ensure they have access to the “best available science and scientific information” to build resilience and capacity to conserve the ocean accordingly.
Navigating the rocky shallows
Although the treaty has been agreed upon by hundreds of countries, there’s still a long way to go before it is brought into force globally. The agreement first needs to be legally ratified, approved and accepted at the national level, by at least 60 countries.
If not enough countries ratify the treaty, then it will not enter into force.
If the wealthiest nations do not ratify the treaty, there may not be sufficient financial provisions to facilitate it.
If the treaty is not implemented cohesively across international waters, then migratory marine species such as whales could be put at increased risk by inconsistent conditions and threats.
If successfully and sufficiently ratified, however, then much like the annual UN climate summits (last year we saw COP27 held in Egypt) a new ocean-centric Conference of the Parties (COP) will be established.
Once in action, the treaty’s funding mechanism will be three-fold, with capital amassed through a mixture of contributions from developed countries, private entities, and multilateral funding channels via the Global Environment Facility.
The European Union (EU) has already announced the bloc will commit just under €820 million to the fund.
To ensure transparent accountability for party countries, each state will be required to regularly report on national implementation and compliance, making sure to encourage other countries to join the High Seas Treaty as they do so.
Finally, even in the best-case scenario of widespread legal adoption, it may still take some time for the required scientific and conservation infrastructure to be set up. Time which, in a global climate of geopolitical instability, could leave the window open for some countries to back out or request amendments to the treaty.
Alas, only time will tell.
The ocean conservation odyssey
After 20 years of being lost at sea, the ship of sustainable solidarity has finally reached the shore – double the amount of time it took Homer’s Ulysses to wander the oceans aimlessly, battle mystical creatures and struggle his way home to Ithaca. What have we been doing?
However, we’re not on dry land yet, we still need the rickety tender boat to carry us safely over the hidden rocks of the shallow waters before we’ll be able to soak up the sun on the beach – and even then we may still get burnt.
That leaves us with no time to waste, and only one message for global leaders:
Take the plunge and ratify the High Seas Treaty.
Otherwise, we only risk drifting back out into the deep blue once again…
Correction: This article has been updated since publication to clarify the following point: Rather than require 30% of the planet’s oceans to be categorised as “Marine Protected Areas” (MPAs) by 2030, the High Seas Treaty will instead support the Global Biodiversity Framework’s 30×30 pledge to conserve 30% of nature by 2030 by providing a framework to categorise portions of the ocean as MPAs.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: The ocean. Featured Photo Credit: Matt Hardy