What’s happening? United Nations member states have failed to finalise a treaty on conserving biodiversity in the high seas – the 60% of the world’s oceans that is not covered by any national jurisdiction. A two-week meeting concluded without an agreement in New York on 18 March. The discussions were the fourth round of negotiations since 2018. Talks focused on the creation of marine reserves, environmental impact assessments for potentially harmful activities, the sharing of marine genetic resources and the transfer of marine technology to developing countries. Observers still expect an agreement to be reached by the end of 2022.
Why does this matter? Almost two-thirds of the world’s oceans lie outside of national jurisdictions, also known as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). According to scientists, these international waters account for up to 95% of all occupied habitats on Earth, with millions of species yet to be discovered. However, only 1.2% of the high seas are currently under protection. In the absence of effective governance mechanisms, these ecosystems are facing growing threats from various industrial and illegal activities as well as climate change.
The share of stocks fished at unsustainable levels, for example, has risen from 10% in 1974 to 33% in 2015. At the same time, shipping volumes have increased by 1,600% since 1982, leading to increased noise pollution and higher risks of collisions between large marine species and industrial vessels. Oil and gas explorations, water contamination with plastics and chemicals, and habitat destruction are also threatening marine life in international waters, while emerging activities such as geoengineering and deep-sea mining are expected to put further pressure on sensitive species.
In order to address these problems, experts have called for an international legal framework focused on conserving biodiversity in the oceans. While there are more than 20 high sea governance organisations with varying mandates – covering activities such as whaling, shipping and mining – there is currently no cross-sectoral regulatory authority. In 2017, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of establishing such a legal framework, known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions (BBNJ) treaty or Treaty of the High Seas, which was meant to be developed over four rounds of negotiations.
The proposed framework focuses on four key areas: the equitable sharing of marine genetic resources, the establishment of management tools such as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), standards for environmental impact assessments of industrial activities, and the transfer of technology and knowledge to developing countries.
Last month, more than 100 countries stressed their ambitions for stronger environmental protection at the One Ocean summit in France, raising hopes for a successful outcome at the fourth and last round of talks. Nevertheless, the UN delegates failed to reach an agreement in New York, which participants blamed on the “glacial pace” of negotiations. Some countries, including Russia and Iceland, have been accused of deliberately prolonging the talks and seeking to water down environmental protections by excluding fishing from the agreement – even though healthy ecosystems are proven to benefit commercial fish stocks. A 2018 study found that fully protected MPAs, for instance, host 670% more fish biomass than unprotected areas and can also boost fish stock outside of their boundaries through the migration of adult fish and the dispersal of larvae.
To advance the negotiations for the BBJN treaty, the UN General Assembly has to approve additional rounds of talks, but experts are worried time is running out to reach an agreement in time for another critical environmental initiative: the international “30×30” pledge aimed at protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by the end of the decade. Without the BBNJ framework, establishing MPAs in international waters would be legally challenging, which means that countries signing up to the pledge at the forthcoming Biodiversity Summit in China in May would have to create MPAs in their national jurisdictions. To reach the 30% target, this would require an area almost as large as all EEZs combined.