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Historic High Seas Treaty to Conserve Biodiversity

Featured Photo: Photo courtesy of NOAA

Late Saturday evening, after a sleepless Friday night in the United Nations, two decades of negotiations came to an end. With a simple statement, “the ship has reached the shore,” Singapore’s Rena Lee (president of the negotiations) announced a once-in-a-lifetime agreement. This historic treaty will enable international efforts to protect biodiversity on the high seas, the ocean areas outside of national waters that cover 70% of the ocean and nearly half the planet. It took intense negotiations in the final 48 hours to reach agreement on key substantive issues.

President Lance Morgan – Emperor Seamounts in the north Pacific are one special area of the high seas that deserves protection.

Marine Conservation Institute is a founding member of the High Seas Alliance and has been an active member of the Steering Committee advocating for an international agreement with a strong conservation outcome. The high seas is the largest habitat on Earth and home to millions of species, including the largest reservoir of undescribed ones. With just ~1% of its area protected (High Seas Marine Protection | Marine Protection Atlas, the new Treaty will provide a pathway to establish marine protected areas in these waters. It is also a key tool to help deliver the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework target of protecting at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030 that was just adopted in December- the minimum level of protection scientists warn is necessary to restore a healthy ocean.

To ensure this hard won progress is not lost, we are calling for the United Nations to conclude the formalities of adopting the High Seas Treaty as soon as possible and move on to ratification.  Sixty states must ratify the treaty to bring it into force.

But what will the treaty mean? A few highlights of the treaty:

  1. The global community will now have the missing tool to establish marine protected areas to protect biodiversity. Marine protected areas will be created through a process of negotiation that encourages consultation and cooperation with existing decision-making bodies; other area-based tools can also be considered.
  2. Environmental Impact Assessments will need to be performed for new activities on the high seas that are likely to produce adverse impacts.
  3. New rules will direct the costs and rewards from new fields of scientific discovery to be shared equitably; developing countries will receive assistance with research funding, capacity building and the transfer of technology.
  4. An agreement on how to share monetary benefits of marine genetic resources is still being determined, but non-monetary benefits, such as access to samples and digital sequence information from new discoveries in the high seas, will be shared, and researchers from all countries will be able to study them for free.
President Lance Morgan with Assistant Secretary of State for Ocean, Environment and Science Monica Medina at the final night of treaty negotiations at the UN

Some may find fault with aspects of the treaty; it does not prioritize conservation perfectly, but it lays a foundation for significant conservation progress. It will bring ocean governance into the 21st century, including establishing modern requirements to assess and manage planned human activities that would affect marine life in the high seas as well as ensuring greater transparency. This will greatly strengthen the effective area-based management of fishing, shipping and other activities that have contributed to the overall decline in ocean health. A lot of work remains, but now we have the opportunity to establish protected areas.

Thanks to this treaty we will be able to advocate for strong and lasting protection for the precious gems of the high seas. Working with our partners and pulling together scientific data, Marine Conservation Institute has already identified a number of these important places in the high seas, and we will be working to establish marine protected areas in these sites, as well as to identify and advance more biodiversity conservation priorities in the coming years. After the effort to complete this enormous step, we can all celebrate for a moment, but then it is back to work to fulfill the promise of this agreement.

The next generation of High Seas advocates; part of the MCI delegation at the UN, Gabriel Carmine, Duke University and Matthew Carvalho, Georgetown University.