Analysis

U.N. Begins Process to Protect the High Seas

Governments gather in New York to open negotiations over a new international treaty to conserve marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction

From March 28 to April 8, something momentous will happen at the United Nations.

For the first time, a U.N. Preparatory Committee will begin developing elements of a new international treaty to protect the biodiversity in ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction, including the high seas. The countries gathering for this meeting—the first of four—have the opportunity to develop the global ocean’s most significant new protections in a generation.

The high seas make up about two-thirds of the world’s ocean. Once thought to be relatively empty of life, science has now proved this vast area to be home to numerous fisheries, unique deepwater corals, and critical habitat for highly migratory species such as whales, sharks, and sea turtles. Each nation can determine the activities that take place within their country’s exclusive economic zone, which can extend up to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline. Beyond that area, however, no single country can govern the ocean, so no government can protect it alone. As a result, the management of high seas activities depends on a patchwork of entities with no comprehensive mechanism to enable their coordination. In fact, there is no workable regime to ensure that future activities won’t impact the health of the ocean.

In the past several decades, high seas fisheries have boomed. A study by the Global Ocean Commission has shown that the gross landed value of fish caught on the high seas is US$16 billion a year. And increasing numbers of human activities are either underway or being explored in high seas regions: Rocket launches, seabed mining, and power generation may soon be commonplace.

The new high seas agreement can—and should—close the management gaps for existing and future activities. Pew is working to ensure that the agreement includes a few key items to guarantee that new and emerging high seas activities don’t cause environmental damage and that unique areas of importance can be protected in areas beyond national jurisdiction. By requiring environmental impact assessments for potentially harmful high seas activities, valuable parts of the ocean can be safeguarded preemptively, before possible damage is inflicted.

In addition, by creating a process to establish high seas marine protected areas (MPAs), including fully protected marine reserves, ecologically important parts of the high seas can remain reservoirs of biodiversity and build resilience to climate change.  New research published in the journal Conservation Letters indicates that 30 percent of the ocean needs protection in order to best conserve biodiversity and ecosystems. This  will be impossible in practice without high seas MPAs.

By closing the management gaps on the high seas, this new international treaty signals to the entire world that protecting marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is an important part of 21st-century sustainable development.

This first Preparatory Committee meeting is a critical step forward for the health of the ocean.

Elizabeth Wilson directs the international ocean policy team at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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