Work begins on a high seas governance treaty that could lead to major marine protections.On June 19, 2015, members of the U.N. General Assembly gathered at the organization’s headquarters in New York to take a critical step for our planet. The General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution committing to draft a global treaty to govern and protect the high seas—the 64 percent of ocean waters that lie outside the jurisdiction of any country.
In the spring of 2016, a U.N. Preparatory Committee held a 10-day meeting in New York to begin working out the details of the treaty. Follow-up negotiations are slated for this summer and 2017.
The high seas make up about two-thirds of the world’s oceans. While few people have direct interactions with these waters, healthy and well-managed high seas benefit all of us.
Each country with a coastline has an exclusive economic zone, which typically extends from shore for 200 nautical miles. Beyond those boundaries are the high seas, which belong to everyone but are governed by no one. Parts of the high seas are managed by international bodies that oversee fishing, seabed mining, or shipping, but there is no overarching mechanism to ensure that those organizations work together toward the same goals. Further, the existing management structure doesn’t take into account activities that might happen on the high seas in the future, such as energy development.
This sectoral management approach may have worked in the past, when human impact on the oceans was lighter than it is today and when the value of the high seas was not fully understood. But it is time for a new approach, particularly in light of all that science has revealed about the importance and diversity of these waters.
We now know that highly migratory species such as whales, sea turtles, and sharks depend on the high seas for food and refuge, and that microscopic organisms and deep-sea species play vital roles in the ocean food web. And scientists continue to discover plants and animals on the high seas, many of which hold promise for use in medicines and other crucial products; there is no telling how much life there is still undiscovered.
The new treaty could establish a global management regime, thus filling in the missing pieces in high seas governance. There are four main components to be negotiated: access to and benefit sharing of genetic resources found in the open ocean; capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology to developing countries to facilitate conservation and sustainable use; conducting environmental impact assessments; and, perhaps of the greatest importance, area-based management tools, including marine protected areas (MPAs).
MPAs—and, in particular, fully protected marine reserves—safeguard biodiversity, provide benefits to neighboring areas as marine life swims or drifts in and out of the sanctuaries, and maintain ecosystem stability, for example by protecting predators that are heavily targeted by fishing.
MPAs also can serve as critical reference points for climate scientists studying the warming oceans, and protections can help species build resilience to warming waters by eliminating other pressures on ecosystems. While many countries have established MPAs in their national waters, only 2 percent of the global ocean is fully protected.
A scientific study in the March issue of the journal Conservation Letters found that to protect species and promote productive fisheries, and to otherwise improve ocean health, 30 percent of the world’s oceans should be set aside as MPAs. That conclusion echoed a 30 percent MPA recommendation from the 2014 International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Parks Congress. Establishing MPAs on the high seas could go a long way toward that 30 percent target. To its credit the U.N., in its Sustainable Development Goal 14, took a first step in this direction by committing to protect 10 percent of the ocean by 2020.
The new high seas agreement could respect the mandates of existing organizations and create an overarching structure to help manage protected areas in the open ocean. While key details of the treaty still need to be worked out, many countries have voiced their support for high seas MPAs and for a strong mechanism to create them.
If the U.N. Preparatory Committee talks remain positive and negotiators can reach agreement on key provisions, the United Nations could finalize the treaty as early as 2020.
With continued growth of human activity and related impacts on the high seas, time is of the essence. With each passing year, our chances to protect the natural riches of the high seas diminish. Therefore, rapid progress on the new agreement is needed.
The next few years will be a test of the worldwide commitment to the marine environment and the high seas. The global community must work together to ensure that a new regime is put in place to protect one of the largest and most important parts of our planet.
Elizabeth Wilson directs international ocean policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.