PERSPECTIVE|HIGH SEAS TREATY
11th March, 2023
PERSPECTIVE|HIGH SEAS TREATY
- After nearly a decade of discussions followed by intense negotiations, the United Nations delegates have agreed upon a treaty that will protect international waters across the globe.
- The members of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction finalized the international agreement.
What are the high seas?
- Two-thirds of the world's oceans are currently considered international waters.
- That means all countries have a right to fish, ship and do research there.
- But until now only about 1% of these waters - known as "high seas" - have been protected.
- This leaves the marine life living in the vast majority of the high seas at risk of exploitation from threats including climate change, overfishing and shipping traffic.
Why is the treaty needed?
- With climate change, overfishing, and shipping traffic posing grave threats to marine life, including sharks, whales, abalone species, and countless other aquatic organisms, the need for the treaty's protective measures has never been more pressing.
- In fact, nearly 10 percent of marine species are at risk of extinction, according to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
- With only 39 percent of the world’s oceans falling within national jurisdictions, the rest of the ocean has been designated as international waters or the high seas. As countries have equal rights to fish, ship or research in these international, there is scant protection for marine aquatic life in these areas. Despite increasing risks, only 1 percent of international waters are under any kind of protection.
- As a result, rampant fishing, exploitation, and unsustainable practices have endangered marine life especially whales, sharks, rays and hundreds of other fish species.
- The threat of increasing plastic pollution in the ocean and climate change that is raising oceanic temperatures have made the risk of extinction more probable for a large portion of aquatic flora and fauna. While there already exist a large number of international conventions and organisations trying to protect the oceans, their limited jurisdictions limit their effectiveness.
Which marine species are at risk?
- In the latest assessment of marine species, nearly 10% were found to be at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
- According to the Nigerian Institute For Oceanography. the biggest causes of extinction are overfishing and pollution.
- Sharks, whales and abalone species - a type of shellfish - have come under particular pressure because of their high value as seafood and for drugs.
- The IUCN estimates that 41% of the threatened species are also affected by climate change.
- Carbon dioxide is actually being absorbed by the ocean. That makes the ocean much more acidic, which means that it's going jeopardise certain species.
- Climate change has also increased marine heat waves 20-fold, according to research published in the magazine Science. This can lead to extreme events like cyclones but also mass mortality events.
What will the treaty do?
- The agreement that has been recently signed aims to allocate an astounding 30 percent of the Earth's oceans as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The treaty will also provide essential funding for marine conservation. This is in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework which aims to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.
- To mitigate risks and safeguard marine life, the treaty provides for the designation of protected areas within international waters, which will be proposed by participating countries and voted on collectively.
- While certain activities will still be permitted in these areas, they must align with the conservation objectives of the MPAs, which prioritise the protection of marine life from harm. This could result in stricter regulations on activities such as fishing, shipping, and deep-sea mining, which pose significant threats to the ocean's delicate ecosystems.
- Deep-sea mining, in particular, is a source of serious concern that might be regulated far more heavily after the treaty goes into effect.
- In addition, the treaty establishes arrangements for sharing marine genetic resources and requires environmental impact assessments for deep-sea activities, such as mining.
- The agreement will also set global standards for environmental impact assessments on commercial activities in the ocean. These assessments will also consider cumulative impacts, ensuring that the ocean's health is prioritised.
How will the High Seas Treaty protect marine life?
- The key measure is to put the world's international waters into protected areas (MPAs) - which will help achieve the global goal of protecting 30% of the world's oceans by 2030, which was agreed at the 2022 UN biodiversity conference.
- Activity can occur in these areas but only "provided it is consistent with the conservation objectives" - meaning it doesn't damage marine life.
- This could mean limiting fishing activities, shipping routes and exploration activities like deep-sea mining.
- Environmental groups are seriously concerned about the possible effects of mining, such as disturbing sediments, creating noise pollution and damaging breeding grounds.
- Countries will propose areas to be protected, and these will then be voted on by the countries that sign up to the treaty.
What else is in the treaty?
- The treaty's other important points are:
- arrangements for sharing marine genetic resources; and
- requirements for environmental impact assessments (EIA) for deep sea activities like mining
- Marine genetic resources means biological material from plants and animals in the ocean. These can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals and food.
- Countries have agreed to share "fairly and equitably" any discoveries made in the deep sea between countries. This was important for poorer nations who argued they may not have the resources to undertake this work independently.
- Countries will also be asked to assess the environmental impact of activities in the oceans if the impacts are not well known or could cause harm to marine life.
- Critics point out that countries will conduct their own EIAs and make the final decision - although other countries can register concerns with the monitoring bodies.
Significance of the new Treaty
- Covering nearly half the Earth’s surface, the high seas are shared by all nations under international law, with equal rights to navigate, fish and conduct scientific research. Until now, only a small number of states have taken advantage of these opportunities.
- This new agreement is supposed to help more countries get involved by creating rules for more fairly sharing the rewards from new fields of scientific discovery. This includes assisting developing countries with research funding and the transfer of technology.
- Countries that join the treaty must also ensure that they properly assess and mitigate any environmental impacts from vessels or aircraft in the high seas under their jurisdiction. This will be especially relevant for novel activities like removing plastic.
- Once at least 60 states have ratified the agreement (this may take three years or more), it will be possible to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in high sea locations of special value.
- This could protect unique ecosystemslike the Sargasso Sea: a refuge of floating seaweed bounded by ocean currents in the north Atlantic which offers breeding habitat for countless rare species. By restricting what can happen at these sites, MPAs can help marine life persevere against climate change, acidification, pollution and fishing.
- There are obstacles to all nations participating in the shared enjoyment and protection of the high seas, even with this new treaty. Nations joining the new agreement will need to work with existing global organisations such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which regulates shipping, as well as regional fisheries management organisations.
- The new treaty encourages consultation and cooperation with existing bodies, but states will need to balance their commitments with those made under other agreements. Already, some departments within governments work against each other when implementing broad, international treaties. For example, one division may chafe at greenhouse gas pollution regulations imposed at the IMO while a sister agency advocates for more stringent climate change measures elsewhere.
A new research frontier
- A key element of the new treaty addresses the disproportionate ability of developed countries to benefit from the scientific knowledge and commercial products derived from genetic samples taken from the high seas. More than 40 years ago, when the law of the sea convention was being negotiated, the same issue arose over seabed minerals in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
- Industrialised nations had the technology to explore and intended to eventually mine these minerals, while developing countries did not. At that time, nations agreed that these resources were part of the “common heritage of humankind” and created the International Seabed Authority to manage a shared regime for exploiting them.
- The extreme conditions for life in the open ocean have nurtured a rich diversity of survival strategies, from the bacteria that thrive in the extremely hot hydrothermal vents of the deep sea to icefish that breed in the intense cold of the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. These life forms carry potentially valuable information in their genes, known as marine genetic resources.
- This new agreement provides developing states, whether coastal or landlocked, with rights to the benefits of marine genetic resources. It does not establish an administrative body comparable to that created for seabed mining, however. Instead, non-monetary benefits, such as access to samples and digital sequence information, will be shared and researchers from all countries will be able to study them for free.
- Economic inequality between countries will still determine who can access these samples to a large extent, and sharing DNA sequencing data will be further complicated by the convention on biological diversity, another global treaty. The BBNJ agreement will establish a financial mechanism for sharing the monetary benefits of marine genetic resources, though experts involved in the negotiations are still parsing what it will eventually look like.
- The best hope for robust marine protected areas and equitable use of marine genetic resources lies in rapid implementation of the BBNJ agreement. But making it effective will depend on how its provisions are interpreted in each country and what rules of procedure are established. In many ways, the hard work is beginning.
- Although areas beyond national jurisdiction are remote for most people they generate the air you breathe, the food you eat and moderate the climate. Life exists throughout the ocean, from the surface to the seabed. Ensuring it benefits everyone living today, as well as future generations, will depend on this next phase of implementing the historic treaty.