The UN High Seas Treaty: A Breakthrough for the Ocean’s Health

For nearly two decades, the United Nations member states negotiated on a legal framework that would protect large areas of the ocean, and on the 4th of March, finally an agreement has been reached during the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). The treaty represents the crucial legal mechanism that needed installing to enforce the 30×30 pledge made at the UN Biodiversity Conference last December. This could well be a historic breakthrough, provided that apt legislation will be enforced by appointed governments.

Orcas (Orcinus orca), the largest species of the oceanic dolphin family (Delphinidae), depend on the high seas for food, as the species is one of the ocean’s top predators.

What are the high seas? 

The ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and almost two-thirds of the ocean are not owned by any countries, and therefore remained practically lawless. Referred to as “the high seas, these vast amounts of water not only host an incredible high number of wildlife, but are also key components in managing nutrient mixing and climate regulation worldwide. The fact that these enormous swathes of ocean had minimal legislation in the past meant that the exploiting sector from deep-sea mining enterprises to the fishing industry, had free range. Our oceans provide roughly 50% of the oxygen on Earth, take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide food and livelihoods for millions of people, making it an essential component of the planet’s health.

The high seas (pale green) and exclusive economic zones (white). Source: NOAA

Why is this treaty promising?

Throughout the years of negotiations, the pressure to protect the high seas became bigger. Scientists from around the globe have described the UN talks as “a once in a lifetime” chance to protect the high seas, because without any action, the future of our oceans seems pitiful. Looking back on recent history, the Paris agreement, accompanied by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), seemed promising for our oceans, as was the 30×30 pledge last year. During the UN Biodiversity Conference in December, a promise to protect 30% of the ocean and land was made. The High Seas Treaty is a big step forward towards the promised SDGs and 30×30 pledge. Without any legislation in the high seas, protecting our ocean resources (it being marine biodiversity, food, oxygen supply or carbon stocks), would simply be impossible.  
Nearly 64% of the ocean falls outside countries’ exclusive economic zones, and only 1.2% of the high seas are being protected by law up until now. Therefore, the treaty finally opens the door to stricter enforcements that may translate to effective protection of these endless blue horizons. The potential to manage 100% of our oceans sustainably, with respect for wildlife, a critical eye on fish stocks depletion and strict limitations of chemical pollution, is promised with this UN treaty.

Data source: Jouffray et al. 2020

The aftermath

In order to reach this potential, there are still essential agreements to be made regarding the practicality of managing the high seas. As the high seas do not belong to any government, there are countries protecting their interests to remain lucrative positioning for their fishing industry. Another question scientists ask, is how this agreement will influence the behaviour of existing organisations already operating in the areas. Regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), the international organisations regulating regional fishing activities in the high seas, must revise their policies and set new standards to ensure the protection of the high seas, if the UN truly wants to prioritise conservation.  
At BCSS, we dedicate our day-to-day to researching and understanding our ocean and its inhabitants on a continuous basis. Hosting the first permanent Ocean Observatory focused on multi-ecosystem time series in Africa, we aim to contribute to ocean conservation by using our strategic location and data to support environmental management at a local level and scientific research and data globally.

The Ocean Observatory gathers valuable time-series data to understand what is happening in economic exclusive zones and beyond, which is then shared with governments, contributing to (sustainable) policy making. 
By welcoming national and international researchers and supporting their projects logistically, more data on Marine Protected Areas is gathered, which informs stakeholders regarding potential necessity of MPA expansion, conservation and mitigation of anthropogenic impact.  
BCSS supports the sharing of marine genetic resources by maintaining time-series work and data on e.g. genetic material of use for eDNA calibration, plus, aligns with efforts made to establish controls on marine resources directed towards food and the toxicity in marine resources resulting from anthropogenic pressure. 
• BCSS seconds the need for solid environmental pre/post assessments of seabed exploitations, regardless of the depth, and works together with international organisations and researchers to enhance the understanding the catastrophic effects of marine events (.e.g seabed volcanoes, earthquakes, sediment disturbance and plumes, which effects are similar to seabed mining).  
• BCSS opposes any extractive activities near MPAs and marine life hotspots that have a direct or indirect negative impact on the ecosystem services in the area, for example oil/gas surveys, seabed mining.  
We welcome the vision of the 193 UN member states that shines through the signing of this treaty and are looking towards the future with more hope.

For questions about this article, please contact:
Iris Uijttewaal, Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies

Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies
Host of the first permanent Ocean Observatory focused on multi-ecosystem time series research in Africa, the Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies (BCSS) was established in 2017 as in independent, non-profit organisation with a mission to protect and support the fragile ecosystems of the Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique. The research station is located on Benguerra Island, off the coast of Mozambique.

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