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.
In early February, at the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress, The Pew Charitable Trusts released an innovative, data-driven mapping tool, called “Protect High Seas,” that allows governments, policymakers, and the public to develop a conservation strategy to safeguard the high seas—ocean areas that are beyond national jurisdiction.
The high seas make up roughly two-thirds of the ocean and cover nearly half of the planet’s surface. Scientists have determined that the high seas—and the diverse array of marine life living there—are critical to the health and ecosystem function of the global ocean and should be protected and used sustainably.
By sliding dials of various features on the mapping tool, users can prioritize protecting ocean areas with the greatest biodiversity or areas where industries such as fishing would be least affected by the creation of a marine protected area (MPA). Based on these selections, the tool will generate a map of high seas priority areas ripe for protection that meet the user’s conservation goals and improve the health of the ocean. (This step-by-step tutorial explains how to use the tool.)
The launch of this tool is particularly timely, as United Nations delegates will gather in New York from Feb. 20 to March 3 to resume negotiations on an international treaty to protect the high seas. The proposed high seas treaty would establish a legal mechanism that allows nations to work together in creating effective MPAs and ensures rigorous assessments of the environmental impact of human activities on the high seas.
The “Protect High Seas” tool is an interactive visualization of a 2020 Pew report, “A Path to Creating the First Generation of High Seas Protected Areas,” which was developed in collaboration with a group of scientists led by University of California, Santa Barbara ecologist Doug McCauley. That report identified high seas biodiversity hotspots that could benefit most from an MPA.
MPAs—especially no-take reserves, where fishing is prohibited—are incredibly effective conservation tools that safeguard biodiversity, protect top predators, maintain ecosystem balance, and build resilience to climate change. In the high seas, networks of MPAs that create meaningful links across habitats could benefit highly migratory species, such as whales and turtles.
Nichola Clark works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean governance project.