The High Seas Treaty: A Beacon of Hope for Ocean Conservation

20 December 2023 - // Features
Mikaela Martirosyan
Communication Trainee at REVOLVE

83 Nations Unite to Safeguard the Vast, Unexplored Depths of Our Ocean.

High Seas, international waters, open ocean – all these terms describe the vast expanses of the ocean that are beyond the county’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), meaning that these areas beyond 200 nautical miles or 370 km from the coast of a country can be used freely internationally for fishing, shipping, scientific research, and a number of other activities. The High Seas lie beyond the jurisdiction of any given country, which is why their governance falls under international law.  

Seas of high importance  

It can be challenging to understand the importance of the High Seas, of something that is not within our reach, and that remains largely unexplored, thus their immense value is often overlooked. The High Seas are faced with numerous threats, and if we have a closer look, combined they create a snowball effect, forming a sequence that leads to a more widely discussed issue such as climate change.  

One of the major threats to international waters is illegal, unprotected, and unregulated fishing which entails fishing in no-take areas in most cases using prohibited gear. This leads to overfishing and habitat destruction by using such fishing practices as bottom trawling that damages the seafloor habitat.  

The High Seas comprise nearly 2/3 of the world’s ocean and are home to 95% of marine life, including the phytoplankton. 

This, in turn, influences the marine ecosystem and biodiversity of these areas. Another concern that has been raised is the increasing interest in utilizing genetic resources from the High Seas for biotechnological and pharmaceutical purposes. The implications of the potential impacts of such exploitations on marine ecosystems are not fully known.  

While all these damaging factors are progressing, the High Seas are persevering in being the main ally in the fight against climate change. The High Seas comprise nearly two-thirds of the world’s ocean and are home to 95% of the marine life, including the phytoplankton  (also known as microalgae) that not only provides food for a diverse array of marine organisms but also convert carbon into organic material acting like the trees on earth. 

Phytoplankton – the foundation of the oceanic food chain. Photo: NOAA MESA Project

With the help of phytoplankton, the ocean serves as one of the biggest carbon storages, absorbing 25% of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by human activities since the Industrial Revolution. After these microalgae die, they descend to the ocean floor, taking with them the trapped carbon, which will then be produced into oxygen, comprising more than half of the oxygen essential for our breathing.  

The acknowledgment of the immense impact that the high seas have on life on the planet and the urgency to mitigate the threats led to a creation of an agreement on the international level to protect open waters – the High Seas Treaty.  

Reaching historic heights – The High Seas Treaty 

Just like the High Seas themselves, the High Seas Treaty can be a convoluted concept to understand. The High Seas Treaty is a legally binding document outlining regulations for the conservation and sustainable management of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction – the reason why the Treaty is also referred to as BBNJ.  To put it simply, the Treaty sets out rules for managing the shared space in the ocean that nobody can claim ownership of, therefore safeguarding these areas from harmful human activities.  

The Treaty sets out rules for managing the shared space in the ocean that nobody can claim ownership of. 

The BBNJ Treaty includes 75 articles with the main purpose of “taking stewardship of the ocean on behalf of present and future generations, in line with the Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS)”. The Treaty also keeps in line with the target set out at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) to protect and restore 30% of the ocean by 2030. The extensive list outlined in the Treaty can be summarized into five key points stressed by the UN.  

Coral reef. Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Pexels

1. Protection of the ocean’s wild areas: The Treaty allows for the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) in international waters. Similar to national parks under the government’s protection, these newly established underwater parks aim to safeguard underwater life.  

2. Science for a healthy ocean: The High Seas Treaty promotes ocean research and development of marine technology and ensures that scientific knowledge is used to better the sustainable management of the ocean.  

3. Global cooperation for a healthy ocean: The Treaty ensures the formation of a new international body that will oversee its implementation once ratified providing a platform for countries to collaborate. It also provides a framework for newfound ocean resources to be shared fairly and equitably among all countries.   

4. Building climate resilience: To address the pressing issue of global warming with an alarming rate of ocean heat-up, the Treaty underlines provisions on how to sustainably manage the ocean that will allow to build resilience to climate change and ocean acidification (the process of increasing amounts of CO2 dissolving into the ocean, making the ocean more acidic).  

5. Sustainable Development Goals inclusive: The Treaty has been developed in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Agenda, specifically SDG14 which aims to preserve and restore fish stocks by preventing overfishing alongside minimizing marine pollution. 

Two decades in the making – the Treaty timeline 

The High Seas Treaty was officially signed by 83 countries in the United Nations headquarters in New York in September 2023. It has been coined as a historic agreement” sealing the efforts to protect international waters. However, this monumental achievement did not come easily with numerous rounds of negotiations throughout the years. Prior to the signing of BBNJ, there were almost two decades of preparations and meetings, and here are the key milestones:  

Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: Meizhi Lang / Unsplash
  • In 2004 the UN began preparatory meetings and adopted the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which established a legal framework, however, did not establish guidance on the sustainable management of the high seas.  
  • In 2007 a working group assembled by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) began research on the issues faced in the high seas and the further development of conservation measures.  
  • Almost a decade later, in 2015, UNGA formed a Preparatory Committee set to lay the foundation for BBNJ Treaty negotiations.  
  • The first round of negotiations took place in 2018 in the UN headquarters, marking the first Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (IGC), which was followed by 2 sessions in 2019. Further negotiations were postponed due to the pandemic; thus they resumed in 2022, however, a consensus was yet to be achieved. 
  • March 2023 marks significant progress in the adoption of the Treaty as a final text was agreed upon. The Treaty was then adopted in June 2023 and was opened for signatures in September 2023.   
  • After almost two decades of negotiations, the Treaty has been adopted and signed by 83 countries. The Treaty will remain open for signatures until 2025 giving the opportunity for countries that haven’t signed it yet.  

Ratification Tracker  

The signing of the BBNJ Treaty is a pivotal achievement and a significant step towards the protection of the High Seas ecosystems and the mitigation of impacts of human activities in these vast oceanic areas. However, for the Treaty to enter into force, it needs to be ratified (ensured consistency with domestic laws) by national governments. A minimum of 60 countries need to ratify the Treaty after which it will take 120 days for it to become binding international law (High Seas Treaty final text). 

The High Seas Alliance created a Ratification Tracker that will monitor the process of ratification by each country. The Alliance urges national governments to fast-track the ratification and reach the ambitious goal of having the Treaty in effect by the next UN Ocean Conference, scheduled for June 2025.  

The future of the High Seas Treaty now hinges on its effective implementation and enforcement as countries begin the process of ratifying and translating the Treaty’s provisions into national laws and regulations.   

Mikaela Martirosyan
Communication Trainee at REVOLVE

Featured in

Join Planet

We strive to communicate sustainability for a better world for the next generations.

Support us by becoming a member of REVOLVE Planet today.

Become a Member