Historic high seas treaty brings new hope to global marine conservation

Marine biologists have discovered that whales capture tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.

After weeks of negotiations, delegates of the United Nations reached a historic agreement this month to protect marine biodiversity in international waters.

This treaty would place portions of the world’s oceans, known as the “high seas,” into protected areas and allocate more money for marine conservation.

“This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” said Secretary-General António Guterres after the deal was struck at UN Headquarters in New York, where tough negotiations on the draft treaty have been under way for the past two weeks. 

Due to highly fragmented governance, until now there has not been a coherent mechanism in place to protect the high seas—yet they harbor incredible marine biodiversity, including deep sea coral reef ecosystems and critically important migratory routes for fish, birds and mammals.

The agreement reached by delegates of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, better known by its acronym BBNJ, is the culmination of UN-facilitated talks that began in 2004.

Already being referred to as the ‘High Seas Treaty’, the legal framework would put more money into marine conservation and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources. 

Through his Spokesperson, Mr. Guterres said the treaty is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.  

“It is also vital for achieving ocean-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework,” said the statement, referring to the so-called ‘30 by 30’ pledge to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s lands and inland waters, as well as of marine and coastal areas, by 2030 made by a historic UN conference in Montreal this past December. 

Noting that the BBNJ decision builds on the legacy of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Secretary-General commended all parties for their ambition, flexibility and perseverance, and saluted Ambassador Rena Lee, of Singapore, for her leadership and dedication.  

“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore,” Ms. Lee said last night, announcing the agreement to an extended standing ovation in the meeting room. Delegations will reconvene later to formally adopt the text.   

The statement issued by the UN Spokesperson said the Secretary-General also recognized the critical support of non-governmental organizations, civil society, academic institutions and the scientific community.  

“He looks forward to continuing working with all parties to secure a healthier, more resilient, and more productive ocean, benefiting current and future generations,” the statement concluded. 

“This is a massive success for multilateralism. An example of the transformation our world needs and the people we serve demand,” said Csaba Kőrösi, a Hungarian diplomat serving as President of the 77th United Nations General Assembly. 

“The high seas are essentially any ocean waters 200 nautical miles out from a coastline,” said Emily Nocito, a graduate student in environmental studies who studies international environmental governance and marine conservation, was present at the U.N. meeting in New York City.

“That first 200 fall under national jurisdiction of whatever country that shoreline belongs to, but once you reach the 200 mark, it is considered the high seas,” said Nocito. “They are also called international waters, or we sometimes say ‘areas beyond national jurisdiction.’ It is not owned by a single country or even a single continent, it is a global common. And that’s why it’s fallen to the United Nations to take care of these oceans.”

“The high seas make up two-thirds of our global ocean, about half of our planet,” said Nocito. “They are important for migratory species, such as whales, sea turtles and sharks and they are home to well over 200,000 marine species. We are also reliant on our global oceans for fisheries, and they help mitigate climate effects. Even though you may never see or experience the high seas, they’re still fundamentally important to humans.”

“There are also biodiversity hotspots in the high seas that can support an incredible diversity of marine life,” said Mike Gil, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is a marine biologist who has studied plastic pollution in the high seas.

“Many marine species are used in the synthesis of pharmaceutical products that help with human ailments, like cancer treatments,” said Gil. “But we haven’t rigorously explored many of these places, and so it is entirely possible that there are yet to be discovered species in high seas environments that could help humankind with human health issues.”

“It’s taken two decades of negotiation to get to this point. It’s a game-changer: It sets up the necessary infrastructure for protections to be made on specific areas of the high seas environments, likely in the form of what we call marine reserves, similar to national parks on land,” said Gil. “This allows us to protect and preserve these ecosystems in a state that is as close to their natural state as we can manage.”

The high seas make up 60% of our oceans, which contribute an estimated $1.5 trillion annually to the global economy. If fisheries industries that are dependent on high seas environments collapse, that will have economic ramifications globally.

In addition, between 3 and 3.5 billion people in the world depend on seafood as a primary food source—that’s something like 40% of the global population.

It’s also true that we harvest genetic resources from marine organisms that are used to create pharmaceuticals.

This treaty helps ensure the ability of humankind to utilize nature to support human life.

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