The UN High Seas Treaty: a step forward in preserving our oceans

What’s happening? After 20 years of discussions, the member states of the United Nations (UN) have agreed on a treaty to protect international waters. Two weeks of talks led to the High Seas Treaty, and at a later date, delegates will reconvene to formally adopt the text. The treaty aims to establish vast Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and hold periodic Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings to ensure member states are held accountable for governance and biodiversity of the high seas.

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The “high seas” are the waters laying outside of countries’ economic exclusion zones, equating to almost two-thirds of the ocean’s surface. A lack of regulation on the high seas has led to over-exploitation, pollution, and habitat destruction.

Why does this matter? – The UN High Seas Treaty couldn’t have come soon enough. The 2022 IUCN Red List report found that 10% or 42,108 marine species are at risk of extinction, with 41% of those also affected by climate change. Worryingly, this figure is likely to be far higher – just 67% of fishes, 15% of reef corals, 11% of molluscs and 0.1% of green algae have been assessed for extinction. Species may be lost before they can be added to the Red List. The 30×30 Pledge, made at the UN Biodiversity Conference in December, is an agreement to address this issue by protecting a third of land and sea by 2030. Without the High Seas Treaty, the 30×30 pledge would likely fail.

These include the formation of marine protected area (MPA) legislation, the equitable sharing of genetic resources and the requirement of environment impact assessments (EIA’s) for countries considering large ocean projects. However, as is often the case with international agreements, each comes with caveats.

Marine protected areas – Currently, only 1% of the high seas are protected, leaving marine life at risk of overfishing, shipping traffic and the effects of climate change. Protecting the high seas has previously been inherently difficult. However, the treaty establishes formal legislation, creating a legal framework for the creation and enforcement of MPAs on the high seas for the first time. Countries will be able to propose areas for protection which will be voted on by signatories of the treaty.

Genetic resources – Marine genetic resources include any genetic plant, microbial or animal found in the sea that has actual or potential value, for example, krill, coral sponges, or seaweeds. Marine genetic resources are already generating revenue for pharmaceutical companies and garnering scientific attention, with more uses expected to emerge in the future. The management of these resources and the profit they generate was a contentious point. However, an agreement was made that countries will be permitted to gather resources under the condition that profits are shared equitably. The details of this arrangement are yet to be finalised; however, a share of profits will go to a global marine conservation fund, with richer countries contributing a higher proportion.

Environment impact assessments – The EIA section comprises the longest part of the UN High Seas treaty and was at the centre of negotiations. This legislation covers high seas and national waters, meaning countries that wish to conduct activities that could cause “substantial pollution” or “harmful changes to the marine environment” within their jurisdiction will need to complete an EIA. These assessments quantify potential damage whilst advancing our understanding of ocean ecosystems. However, EIAs are expensive and require array of technology and expertise, making it difficult for poorer nations.

Issues unaddressed – Although positive, there are holes in the treaty. Firstly, protected areas cannot be placed in areas with existing fishing agreements, regardless of their sustainability or fishing methods. Additionally, countries that oppose MPAs are exempted, meaning they can continue environmentally damaging practices within them.

Secondly, the treaty does not overrule authorities that oversee existing activities. Organisations including the International Seabed Authority – whose director was recently accused of abandoning neutrality – remain in control of existing deep-sea mining projects. A recent study found deep-sea mining to be highly destructive to ocean ecosystems that are typically undisturbed, causing irreversible damage.

Critics also argue the treaty does not address overfishing. Overfishing is a major diver of dwindling fish numbers and high extinction rates – in 2017, 34% of fish stocks were overfished. However, the words “fish” or “fishing” are only mentioned 6 times in the treaty, all falling under the genetic resources section, whereby any existing fishing practices are exempt.

Finally, the treaty overlooks many of the symptoms of problems in the ocean. These include on-land nutrient pollution, leading to vast “dead zones“, or government subsidies, one of the main drivers of overfishing. A recent study found that over half of the high seas fishing grounds would not be profitable without government subsidies. In most cases, bottom trawling – seen as one of the most damaging methods of fishing – is only profitable due to subsidies.

The High Seas treaty represents a positive step for global ocean governance, demonstrating collaboration at a time of bitter international relations. The treaty, however, is only the first step, with more work to be done in order to combat the serious drivers of ocean decline.

United Nations