On Dec. 24, 2017, the United Nations General Assembly took a momentous leap forward toward ensuring a healthy ocean by launching negotiations for a new international treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas. These areas beyond national waters—often called the commons because they belong to everyone—are governed by a patchwork of sectoral organizations that regulate fishing, shipping, or mining but that lack the jurisdiction to make and implement comprehensive marine protections.
Adoption of the treaty would mark the culmination of more than a decade of talks at the U.N., and would ultimately create mechanisms to allow for the designation of marine protected areas, including some that are fully safeguarded, on the open ocean.
To celebrate World Oceans Day, here are five facts showing why the high seas are so special and worth protecting.
It is often said that we know more about our solar system than we do about the depths of the ocean. With an average depth of more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), and a maximum depth of over 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), the high seas are difficult to explore, and it may be decades or longer before scientists know just how much life this region of the ocean supports. Some scientists estimate that there could be millions of undiscovered species beyond national jurisdiction.
The high seas make up two-thirds of the world's ocean, and scientists estimate that these waters represent about 95 percent of the occupied habitat of Earth. The high seas also hold astonishing biodiversity, with organisms ranging from tiny plankton and bacteria to whales, sharks, tuna, and more—all of which need healthy waters to survive.
Take a deep breath. Now take another. You can thank the ocean for one of those breaths, specifically microscopic organisms called phytoplankton, which, through photosynthesis, produce half the oxygen humans breathe. Much of the carbon dioxide needed for that process comes from other marine life, but a lot comes from the atmosphere. By absorbing and storing excess CO2, the high seas are helping to slow the impacts of climate change on land. Many people know that trees produce oxygen; it's time for wider recognition of how critical the ocean is to supporting life.
A lot is happening on the high seas, particularly as humans continue to develop technologies that aid exploitation, travel, and commerce. Today, 90 percent of world trade is carried out through international shipping on the high seas, which involves enormous vessels crisscrossing the ocean. Collisions between ships and marine mammals, particularly whales, occur regularly and are a threat to the animals worldwide. And the potential effects of ocean noise on those mammals' communication is still being studied.
According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, 90 percent of global fish stocks are either depleted or fully exploited. Much of this fishing takes place on the high seas. Marine protected areas could help make fishing more sustainable by giving commercially valuable species the chance to feed, reproduce, and rebuild their populations in areas free from industrial or extractive activities.
Protecting the high seas is a big task, but by moving forward with a treaty, the countries of the world have shown a necessary commitment to safeguarding the ocean. When U.N. delegates gather in New York this September for the first round of treaty negotiations, it is essential they consider the value of the high seas to all life on Earth—from the tiniest, undiscovered organism to all of us who depend on the ocean for food, jobs, and the air we breathe.
Liz Karan directs Pew's work to protect ocean life on the high seas.