Pew Welcomes Completion of High Seas Treaty

Agreement creates framework to protect marine life in ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction

Editor’s note: The content on this page was published before June 2023, when the United Nations adopted a legally binding treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, sometimes referred to as the high seas treaty.

NEW YORK—The Pew Charitable Trusts welcomed today the completion of a landmark international agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), also known as the high seas.

The treaty is designed to facilitate the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the high seas as well as provide guidelines for the assessment of environmental impacts of human activities in these areas.

The high seas—which lie beyond the maritime boundaries of any country—support abundant fisheries and marine life, serve as migratory routes for species such as whales and sharks, and harbor remarkable ecosystems such as deep-water corals.

Following a series of delays in the negotiations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of more than 190 Member States of the United Nations met at U.N. headquarters in New York from 20 February through 3 March during the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Conference on BBNJ and reached agreement on the treaty. The text needs to be translated before final adoption by governments at a future date.

The move follows another major ocean conservation victory in December, when Parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity successfully adopted an agreement to protect at least 30 percent of the global ocean by 2030—a goal known as “30 by 30.” That was part of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, an international agreement aimed at halting and reversing biodiversity loss while reorienting nature on a path to recovery.

Liz Karan, director of Pew’s ocean governance project, issued the following statement:

“This treaty is a momentous achievement: Without it, countries would have no clear pathway to establishing meaningful protections for the high seas, which make up two-thirds of the global ocean and cover nearly half the surface of our planet.

“With only 1% of the high seas currently protected, the treaty will be instrumental in providing the legal basis for nations to fulfil the 30 by 30 target. And a network of high seas marine protected areas is critical to 30 by 30 not only because of the MPAs’ size and the incredible biodiversity they harbor, but also because of the connectivity between high seas and coastal waters. 

“High seas MPAs can play a critical role in building resilience to the impacts of climate change. Governments and civil society must now ensure that the agreement is adopted and is effectively implemented to safeguard high seas biodiversity.” 

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