Analysis

A Big Moment for the High Seas

U.N. resolves to begin negotiating a treaty to conserve ocean biodiversity

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World leaders recently took an important step for ocean conservation when the United Nations General Assembly formally committed to negotiate an international agreement to protect ocean life on the high seas, an area that accounts for nearly half the planet.

Here’s why this is such a big deal.

For the first time, instead of negotiating a treaty to manage the removal of marine life from the ocean, the United Nations will negotiate ways to protect it and keep it in the water.

The high seas are areas beyond national jurisdiction and make up 64 percent of the ocean, or 43 percent of the Earth’s surface. Because they encompass such vast regions, they’re also highly valuable from economic and environmental perspectives. Fisheries on the high seas are worth US$16 billion annually, and in a report for the Global Ocean Commission, scientists estimated that the economic value of carbon storage on the high seas range from US$74 billion to US$222 billion per year. And those figures only start to show the true economic value and the benefits we get from the high seas.

The high seas fall outside of national exclusive economic zones, the waters extending 200 miles from shore, and in some ways still operate like the Wild West. Although they are governed by many international, regional, and sectorial agreements and organizations, no overarching management system coordinates how people use them. This new agreement could change that by creating a structure for coordinating regulation of activity in the high seas. A high seas treaty also would chart a course toward creating a network of marine protected areas in the open ocean, which would ensure that special places on the high seas receive the protection they need to remain vibrant, diverse ecosystems.

Scientists say that marine protected areas can address critical challenges to ocean health by safeguarding biodiversity, protecting top predators (which are crucial to maintaining healthy ocean habitat), and providing ecological benefits to neighboring ecosystems. These seas, shielded from overfishing and other damaging exploitation, offer even more benefits when they are large, highly protected, isolated, well-enforced, and long-standing. For example, marine protected areas that meet these criteria have an increased diversity of species, and twice as many large fish, compared to places where fishing is allowed.

The U.N.’s step forward with negotiations represents a great start, but there is still much work to be done. This resolution marks the beginning of complex negotiations that could take years. World leaders must negotiate this important treaty quickly, so they need to hear from all who care about the future of the world’s oceans. Use the hash tag #highseas on Twitter or Facebook to share your thoughts about why you think the high seas should be protected, or just talk about the issue with family and friends.

The high seas are a common good that serve us all. Through worldwide support, we can ensure these special ocean areas have a healthy future.

Elizabeth Wilson directs Pew’s international ocean policy work.

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