Finally, a High Seas Treaty to Protect the World’s Oceans

A new U.N. agreement aims to bring order and conservation to what has—up to now—been an ocean of mismanagement and neglect.

A black-browed albatross flies over the Southern Ocean. Albatross spend nearly 40% of their lifetime on the high seas.


Andrew Peacock/Getty Images

More than 60 percent of the ocean is a near lawless realm where holes in the international regulatory “system” are large enough to sail through. But in early March, delegates at the United Nations headquarters in New York City emerged from a 36-hour marathon negotiation session to announce a new high seas treaty. First conceived nearly two decades ago, the treaty, once ratified, will address the jumble of rules that have failed to prevent the depletion of fisheries, the loss of unique and fragile habitats, and the decline of populations of whales, sea turtles, seabirds, and other marine wildlife within an area that covers nearly half of the planet. 

For years, negotiators couldn’t agree on the details, and up until the very last hours of the latest negotiations, it again looked as if members had reached an impasse. But in the end, they managed to agree upon language that bridged the gaps. “This is a moment of extraordinary consequence,” says Lisa Speer, director of the oceans division in NRDC’s Nature Program. “In bringing modern standards of conservation to the high seas, the U.N. treaty is not only a win for marine wildlife but for the billions of people for whom healthy oceans are vital to sustaining their nutrition, livelihoods, and cultural heritage.”

What makes the high seas “high”?

Legally, the sea becomes “high” when you sail beyond the waters under the control of a nation-state, about 200 miles from the coastline. Informally, the high seas are a place of loose regulation and lax enforcement—the aquatic equivalent of the Wild West.

That comparison is, perhaps, overstating the lawlessness of the open ocean—but only slightly. The 17th-century concept of freedom of the seas has been somewhat circumscribed by a series of treaties, agreements, and arrangements developed in the 20th century that establish different rules and standards for different human activities on the high seas. These rules, however, now form an inconsistent and outdated legal patchwork that leaves the long-term survival of marine ecosystems in the balance.

The map below shows which organizations currently have some kind of governance authority in certain areas of the high seas. 

Notice where two, or even three, organizations share authority for the same spot in the ocean. The area directly south of Africa, for example, is within the jurisdiction of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organisation, and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, in addition to the global bodies that control shipping in the region (the International Maritime Organization), seabed mining (International Seabed Authority), and various other treaties (e.g., the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals). Each of these agreements and organizations has different mandates, standards, and requirements governing human activity, and there is little or no cooperation between them. And there definitely isn’t anyone charged with looking at the cumulative effects of different activities across the same ecosystems. This uncoordinated governance is not a good thing—and not just because there can be a conflict of authority. To draw a comparison, think of what could happen if eight doctors were treating different parts of the same patient without talking to each other or without any one of them making sure that their combined treatments don’t end up killing the patient.

Why we need a high seas treaty

The hodgepodge of authority on the high seas allows exploitation to flourish. Take illegal fishing, for just one example. Although there are 17 regional fishery management organizations and several treaties governing fishing, approximately 20 percent of fish are still caught unlawfully worldwide. (This can mean that the vessel lacks authority to fish, that the species is being fished beyond legal limits, or that the species is protected and shouldn’t be harvested at all.) Illegal fishing costs the global economy $23 billion annually, and such operations rob subsistence and small-scale fishing communities of their livelihoods. The black market associated with illegally caught fish is also tied to other unlawful networks, such as narcotics, slave labor, and weapons smuggling.

Members of the United Nations met repeatedly over two decades to negotiate the details of the high seas treaty.

Keep in mind that even legal fishing operations are currently depleting the ocean’s resources far too quickly. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the populations of 33 percent of popular commercial species suffer from overfishing, which not only jeopardizes our ability to fish these species in the future but also the roles they play in their ecosystems and the overall health of the ocean. Some fish populations have dwindled to alarmingly low levels. Recent assessments estimated that Pacific bluefin tuna hang on at a mere 3.3 percent of their original abundance, and New England cod numbers are below 10 percent of their historic levels.

The high seas account for about 95 percent of the planet’s occupied habitat.

The ocean, of course, is more than a fish farm—it’s a priceless repository of biodiversity. In fact, the high seas account for about 95 percent of the planet’s occupied habitat. Altogether, nearly a third of the world’s phyla live exclusively in marine environments. Yet that treasure trove of life is degrading without most of us even noticing. More than 1,550 of the nearly 18,000 different marine animals and plants recently assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are currently at risk of extinction—including more than a third of all sharks, rays, and chimaeras and 20 of the world’s 54 known species of abalone.

What would the high seas treaty do?

A key provision of the treaty calls for the establishment of high seas marine protected areas (MPAs), which are vast stretches where wildlife can thrive without interference from harmful human activity. This would be a shift from current circumstances, in which MPAs typically fall within a country’s coastal or “territorial” waters. New MPAs would help bring us closer to the goal of preserving 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030 in order to combat and adapt to climate change while also helping to ward off mass extinction. In addition, the treaty calls for a new conference of the parties, or COP (not to be confused with the climate COP), to explore problems, propose solutions, and develop rules. Another provision would create a framework to help ensure that any genetic resources, such as the genetic code sequences used in the development of new medicines and other products, extracted from the high seas would be done responsibly and sustainably. Moreover, the provision would ensure that any benefits resulting from such activity, such as the development of new medicines or commercial products, would be shared equitably among nations.

For Speer and other ocean advocates, the next step is obtaining the 60 ratifications necessary for the treaty to go into effect before the next U.N. Ocean Conference, scheduled for 2025. “It’s ambitious but doable,” she says. “In the meantime, we don’t need to wait to get started on creating new, large-scale, fully protected high seas MPAs—which are what scientists tell us is needed to give the ocean a fighting chance in the face of climate change.”

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