New High Seas Treaty Could Be a Gamechanger for the Ocean
Most of us have never been to the world's immense last wilderness and never will. It's beyond the horizon and often past the limits of our imaginations. It contains towering underwater mountain ranges, ancient corals, mysterious, unknown forms of life and the largest seagrass meadow in the world.
Yet it begins just 200 nautical miles off our shores. Technically referred to as "areas beyond national jurisdiction," these remote expanses are known to most people simply as "the high seas."
Their vast, dark waters encompass roughly two-thirds of the ocean and half the planet and are the last great global commons. Yet just 1 percent are protected, leaving these vital but relatively lawless expanses open to overfishing, pollution, piracy and other threats.
That could change soon.
In 2018, after more than a decade of groundwork at the United Nations, negotiations officially began for a new treaty focused on conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the waters beyond national jurisdiction.
The proposed treaty is being developed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982 and defined nations' rights and responsibilities for use of the world's oceans. The Convention itself is a landmark agreement that established many key environmental protections and policies, but over the years it's become obvious that some gaps in its governance policy have left the ocean's ecosystems open to ongoing and emerging threats.
The new treaty is intended to help fill those gaps, although, as with any international agreement, that presents challenges. Representatives of world governments gathered in 2018 and 2019 for three rounds of negotiations, but many parts of the key issues remained unresolved. Among them are plans to establish a framework for evaluating and implementing area-based management tools, which include marine protected areas, since no such systems exist now for the high seas.
Other items requiring agreement include establishing uniform requirements for conducting environmental impact assessments; how benefits from marine genetic resources may be shared among nations; and capacity building for management and conservation.
"This is the first time that there's been a treaty process devoted to marine biodiversity in the high seas and the first ocean treaty really to be negotiated in over 30 years," said Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 environmental nonprofits and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "It's a big deal, and it's been a long time coming."
But this historic opportunity is also one that could be squandered if the treaty fails to enact protections strong enough to actually safeguard ocean life.
"It has the potential to be a gamechanger for the oceans," said Douglas McCauley, a professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology at U.C. Santa Barbara and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative. "But it's still to be determined whether it will be just the treaty version of lip service."
The Need for Protection
We're all connected to the high seas, even if we never actually see them, says Morgan Visalli, a project scientist at Benioff Ocean Initiative at U.C. Santa Barbara. "It's incredibly important for helping to regulate the climate, for providing oxygen, food and jobs."
But marine ecosystems face grave threats from an onslaught of abuses: chemical, plastic and noise pollution; deep seabed mining and other kinds of resource extraction; increased shipping; overfishing and illegal fishing; and climate change, which is altering both the temperature and chemistry of the waters.
Cargo ship at sea. Bernard Spragg / public domain
Numerous strategies are needed to tackle these problems, including the bedrock component of reducing greenhouse gases.
But a key tool that scientists have identified to help restore biodiversity is establishing reserves, often referred to as ocean parks or marine protected areas.
We know pretty well how to do this in national waters — there are more than 15,000 of them already in places like Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Florida Keys. But few such protected areas exist in the high seas because there is no international framework to guide the process. One such effort to establish a marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea took years of research and diplomacy to implement.
It's simply not feasible to scale the process — especially in the time we'd need to do it. That's why creating such a framework for marine protected areas in waters outside of national waters is a key part of the new high-seas treaty negotiations.
And that fits into a larger global vision.
"The science is clear, if we're going to sustain a healthy, functioning ocean ecosystem, we need to be protecting at least 30% of the world's oceans," said Liz Karan, who leads efforts to protect the high seas for Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the High Seas Alliance.
In anticipation of the treaty's passage, scientists like Visalli and McCauley have already started modeling how new priority areas could be identified.
New #HighSeas Treaty Could Be a Gamechanger for the #Ocean— Benioff Ocean Initiative (@UCSBenioffOcean) May 8, 2020
In anticipation of the treaty's passage, Benioff Ocean Initiative scientists & collaborators have developed a data-driven approach to identify priority areas for protection in the high seashttps://t.co/AMbBXckhPF pic.twitter.com/1jZo9o3Vfa
The other parts of the treaty, including environmental impact assessments and genetic resources, remain vital areas of discussion, but conservation groups have stressed the importance of protected ocean reserves for protecting the planet.