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High Seas History in the Making

Feature Pic: Elias Levy

World leaders may soon make history for ocean wildlife. After more than a decade of halting progress, a UN Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is convening for the next 10 days to negotiate a treaty to protect biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), also known as the high seas. An agreement would fill a void in the existing UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which regulates some high seas activities but has left many species in need of more protection. According to our President Dr. Lance Morgan, “Activities on the high seas are managed one sector at a time, and new threats are emerging. Any kind of effort to protect a vulnerable habitat must currently go through different international entities that manage shipping, fishing and mining.” Thus, change is needed for this great blue expanse.


The high seas cover about 45% of the Earth’s surface and account for 64% of the ocean. Photo: Cristian Palmer


The UN IGC negotiations play out against an ongoing tragedy in our greatest global commons: the high seas cover almost half of the planet and are being overfished to the brink of ecological collapse in many areas. With added threats from plastic pollution and climate change, human activities even endanger many non-targeted creatures cruising these waters, such as white sharks, blue whales, and wandering albatrosses. The high seas seabed is home to many deep-sea fishes and invertebrates that could be wiped out by fishing and mining as well. Thankfully, the world now has a chance to step up and stop this decline.


Blue whales are dependent on feeding in and migrating through the high seas during their life cycle.


The IGC will focus on building a new management framework for human activities on the high seas. Its treaty talks will be based around four main elements: capacity building and marine technology transfer, environmental impact assessments, marine protected areas (MPAs) and sharing marine genetic benefits. Scientists will be pushing for bold progress in each element, including the establishment of no take marine protected areas (MPAs) and broad restrictions on commercial extraction and fishing. Dr. Morgan is attending the meeting to urge governments to support strong MPAs, as he believes that this meeting offers, “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move forward on sustainably managing the high seas and protecting its biodiversity.” His presence at the IGC and our advocacy surrounding it are part of Marine Conservation Institute’s longstanding commitment to securing effective high seas protection measures.


Most whale sharks migrate through warm temperate and tropical high seas waters around the world. Photo: Jeremy Bishop


Our team uses its scientific expertise and mapping skills to find and advocate for biodiversity hot spots in the high seas. This work supports efforts to protect ecologically important and threatened high seas areas, known as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs). Because scientists use the presence of indicator species like cold-water corals and sponges to establish these reserves, our mapping work helps them identify new areas that warrant special protection. Our team continues developing species distribution models to find indicator species in the Pacific Ocean, which will provide essential information to international authorities looking to conserve important areas under a new high seas treaty. This mapping work supports our other projects involved with high seas conservation, including the Marine Protection Atlas.


The interactive High Seas Protections tracker showcases ocean protection measures on the high seas.


Our Marine Protection Atlas ( initiative is a hub for tracking and analyzing ocean management measures to ensure that true conservation progress is assessed and recognized. To analyze ongoing high seas protection efforts, the team built the interactive High Seas Protections tracker that maps current protected areas. They also contributed to a Nature article, “How to save the high seas”, that explores high seas protection and scientists’ hopes for the IGC negotiations. holds governments to account for their conservation promises, and our team looks forward to assessing new high seas protections as countries work to save critically important ecosystems. This project also informs our role as a member of the High Seas Alliance, a leading international coalition pushing for high seas protections.



The High Seas Alliance will be very active in advocating for a strong treaty at the IGC. Follow their Twitter handles (@HighSeasAllianc and #OneOceanOnePlanet) and Treaty Tracker to stay up-to-date on all discussions and conference news. Our social media channels (@savingoceans) will be updated as we speak out and support conservation during this singular event as well. Join us as we make history for high seas wildlife!


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  1. Linda Jarvis on September 4, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Make the high seas an MPA! Take the leap, why not? and let the oceans breathe!