Here be dragons, but for how long? Hoping for a high seas treaty

UN high seas treaty talks resume in New York

Places of legend, adventure and the great unknown: the high seas have long been part of the public imagination. But without almost no framework for conservation or protection, they’re at risk of being destroyed before we even understand them.

The high seas are the areas of ocean that lie outside any country’s exclusive economic zone or territorial waters and thus beyond the reach of normal maritime protections. As such, they are far more susceptible to exploitation such as illegal fishing, overfishing and potentially even deep-sea mining.

That’s why delegates from all 193 member states have gathered at the UN headquarters in New York for the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). Expected to last until 3 March, this is the fifth attempt at reaching a consensus on high seas protection after previous negotiations collapsed last year.

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What makes the high seas important?

The ocean accounts for almost two-thirds of our planet, and the high seas make up 64 percent of it by surface area and almost 95 percent by volume. Around half of the oxygen we need comes from the ocean, which also absorbs a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions and 90 percent of the excess heat that those emissions generate. What’s more, an estimated 78 percent of animal biomass lives in marine environments – meaning the vast majority of fauna on earth is found in the ocean.

And yet, only a tiny fraction of those waters are safeguarded, with just 18.7 percent of national waters and 1.4 percent of the high seas established as protected areas. While there has been an increase in the coverage of marine protected areas (MPA) over the past two decades, the vast majority of them are still focused on national waters.

Not only are the high seas largely unprotected, but they’re also poorly understood. Relatively little research has been carried out in these parts of the ocean, meaning numerous species could be lost before they’re ever even found. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 80 percent of the ocean has never been mapped, explored, or even observed by humans. By comparison, almost 90 percent of the surface of Mars has been mapped.

Why are the current high seas talks important?

The current discussions are focused on protecting the high seas and the seabed below from exploitation. These negotiations could prove critical for enforcing pledges made at the UN COP15 biodiversity conference in December 2022, where countries agreed to conserve 30 percent of terrestrial and marine habitat by 2030. Without a high seas framework, there is no practical way to “ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of over two thirds of our life sustaining ocean space,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement ahead of the latest round of talks.  

What are the chances of a high seas treaty being agreed?

So far, numerous barriers have prevented the success of these negotiations, from practical considerations around enforcement to ethical issues around access to resources to the fundamental question of who would finance these conservation projects.

Despite these hurdles, conference President Rena Lee  believes the negotiations are close to success, proclaiming at the end of last year’s failed talks that “we have never been so close to the finish line in this process.” The delegate for Iceland – where ocean industries generate as much as 30% of the country’s GDP – went as far as to say that the conference had “made more progress in two weeks than has been done in the past decade.”

However, it remains to be seen whether last year’s confidence will lead to a breakthrough this year. “Negotiations have been going around in circles, progressing at a snail’s pace,” said Laura Meller, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic. “Negotiations must accelerate and Global North countries like the U.K., U.S. and European Union member states must seek compromises instead of quibbling over minor points.”

As the negotiations enter their final hours, the pressure is on to reach a meaningful agreement that could make or break the world’s biodiversity and climate targets.



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