The high seas treaty is the legal framework agreed upon by the United Nations member states for parts of the ocean outside national boundaries. This is the first-ever treaty of this nature. The UN High Seas Treaty places 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas, puts more money into marine conservation, and means new rules for mining at sea. Read here to learn more about the treaty.
For the first time, UN members have agreed on a unified treaty to protect biodiversity on high seas. Treaty was negotiated under United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 which governs countries’ rights regarding marine resources.
The Treaty of High Seas, also known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Treaty, will create a new body to manage the conservation of ocean life and establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on high seas.
It will put limits on how much fishing can take place, exploration activities like deep sea mining, etc.
UN High Seas Treaty or Treaty of High Seas
Since 2017, an Inter-Governmental Conference established by the United Nations General Assembly has been negotiating an agreement under UNCLOS that would allow for more effective management and protection of the high seas.
This internationally legally binding instrument is often referred to as the Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty, or “BBNJ treaty.”
This treaty focuses on four main areas:
- Conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in ABNJ, including marine genetic resources
- Area-based management tools, including marine protected areas (MPA)
- Environmental impact assessments
- Capacity building and the transfer of marine technology
An intergovernmental meeting at the UN on March 4, 2023, approved the United Nations High Seas Treaty as a part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
- The major decision is the agreement to place 30% of the world’s international waters into protected areas (MPAs) by 2030.
- The deal, which covers about two-thirds of the ocean outside of state borders, will offer a legal framework for creating sizable marine protected areas (MPAs) to guard against the extinction of animals and distribute the genetic riches of the high seas.
- By creating the Conference of the Parties (COP), member nations will be able to be held accountable for matters like governance and biodiversity.
- Arrangements for sharing marine genetic resources, such as biological material from plants and animals in the ocean. These can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals and food.
- Requirements for environmental assessments for deep sea activities like mining.
What are the high seas?
The high seas are defined by international law as all parts of the ocean that aren’t included in the exclusive economic zone, the territorial sea, the internal waters of a country, or the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic country.
This means that the high seas and associated resources are not directly owned or regulated by any country.
Worldwide oceans make up around two-thirds of international waterways. This implies that all nations have the freedom to fish, ship, and conduct research there.
- The high seas are some of the most biologically productive in the world – teeming with plankton and home to ocean giants like predatory fish, whales, and sharks.
- The seabed sequesters tremendous amounts of carbon and the ocean volume traps heat, slowing the effects of climate change on land and in the atmosphere dramatically.
- High seas begin at the border of countries’ EEZ, which extend up to 370km from coastlines.
- However, up until today, just 1% of these high seas waters have been adequately safeguarded.
The high seas and seabed areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (ABNJ) play a critical role in maintaining life on Earth.
- As a result, problems including climate change, overfishing, and shipping traffic pose a threat to the marine species that inhabit the vast bulk of the high seas.
- But, the current framework of governance related to the conservation of marine biodiversity in ABNJ is weak and is characterized by large gaps.
- Gaps include the absence of rules to establish cross-sectorial marine protected areas (MPAs) and other effective conservation tools.
The seafloor beyond the limits of the coastal continental shelf is what is termed “the Area” by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
- The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is mandated to regulate the exploration for, and exploitation of, seabed mineral resources in the Area for the benefit of humankind.
- The ISA has the power to allocate certain parts of the Area to countries for exploration and mining.
- Many other activities (like fishing and shipping) also occur on the high seas, and several regional and sectoral organizations with different responsibilities contribute to its governance, which has been characterized as fragmented.
Significance of the High Seas Treaty
The new treaty will enable a more holistic and equitable management of human activities affecting ocean life beyond national boundaries and safeguard global ocean health, climate resilience, socio-economic well-being, and food security for millions of people.
The high seas treaty is also significant in-
- The treaty is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
- Enforcing the UN Biodiversity Conference’s pledge to conserve 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030 (30×30 goal).
- 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
- Obliges countries to conduct environmental impact assessments of proposed activities on high seas.
- Combine different regional treaties to address threats and concerns across species’ ranges.
- The treaty also aims to protect against potential impacts like deep sea mining.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
- In the latest assessment of marine species, nearly 10% were found to be at risk of extinction.
- They also estimate that 41% of the threatened species are also affected by climate change.
- Climate change has also increased marine heat waves 20-fold, according to research.
The issue of climate change in the sea involves implementing other global agreements such as the Paris Agreement. This helps in better collaboration between different multilateral agreements within the UN conventions as well.
How to appropriately share marine genetic resources (MGR) and any earnings were one of the main issues that separated poor and industrialized countries.
- Due to their potential for application in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, MGR, which are made up of the genetic material of bacteria, corals, krill, seaweed, and deep-sea marine sponges, are gaining more scientific and commercial interest.
The process for establishing marine protected zones and the paradigm for environmental impact analyses of anticipated high seas operations were other contentious issues.
The high seas treaty will place 30 percent of the world’s oceans into protected areas, put more money into marine conservation, and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources.
The treaty must first be formally adopted at a later session, and then it only enters into force once enough countries have signed up and legally passed it in their own countries.
Hence, even though this breakthrough is significant, there is still a long way to go in terms of implementation.
-Article written by Swathi Satish