The UN’s ‘High Seas Treaty’: historic global agreement on protecting oceans

This past March, after nearly two decades of discussion and negotiations between states, UN member countries have finalized a treaty dedicated to “ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction” (UN). Being referred to as the “High Seas Treaty”, the text outlines a legal framework that subsidizes marine conservation and protection efforts outside national boundaries. Prior to the treaty, there was no legal route to protecting large areas of international waters, thus leaving all marine life within those waters vulnerable to pollution or exploitation, such as oil spills, dumping, and overfishing/hunting. International waters have historically been difficult to govern as coastal countries are only responsible for administration within certain limits. As a result, these high seas have often been neglected of regulation and protection, leaving them especially at risk to high levels of pollution, as seen in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Healthy oceans are essential to combatting climate change because the ocean produces half of the oxygen needed for humans, and is the world’s largest carbon sink, absorbing tremendous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.

However, with the introduction of the treaty, a pathway to creating highly protected oceans across the world is provided, as the treaty strives to create a network of sanctuaries worldwide, where fragile ecosystems and species can thrive. Furthermore, the treaty contributes to the UN’s projected ’30 by 30′ goal – which aims to formally protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. Governments have now reached an agreement on key issues that will promote better management and sustainment of marine biodiversity within the high seas. Following the creation of the treaty, the text will undergo technical editing before being officially adopted at another session by UN member states, where enforcement of the treaty must be ensured to warrant efficacy and progress in global waters.

While the High Seas Treaty has yet to be implemented, the treaty represents huge steps being taken in protecting the world’s oceans, where global leaders are able to bypass disagreements and reach a shared commitment to maintaining marine biodiversity. After all, any depletion of the environment is holistically reflected in the state of the world that we all share, reflecting the perpetual interconnectedness of our planet. Hopefully, with the treaty’s conservation of the high seas also comes reduced impacts of climate change, resulting in the provision of food security, protected ecosystems, and more sustainable ocean practices for years to come.