Rebecca Hubbard, Director, High Seas Alliance
After almost 36 hours of non-stop negotiations, Rena Lee, President of the UN Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), shed tears of relief and joy on 4 March as she sealed the deal on the agreement for a new High Seas Treaty to protect ocean life. It was a profound moment. It had been years of difficult negotiations to reach this huge milestone. The world’s media lauded it as historic, and they were right. It was a a moment of tangible hope for ocean protection and efforts to navigate the twin planetary crises of climate change and biodiversity decline.
The High Seas Treaty agreement – or, as it is officially known, the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) – is the major first step towards an international roadmap to protect the global ocean. It marks the culmination of years of hard work and dedication by many different players, including the High Seas Alliance, a powerful and impressive armada of groups and individuals that have been campaigning for a robust High Seas Treaty since its inception in 2011.
The Treaty is a big deal because, once it enters into force, it will provide a huge piece of the puzzle in mitigating the global climate and biodiversity crises by protecting ocean health. The High Seas, which cover almost half the planet’s entire surface – nearly two-thirds of the global ocean – are home to around 80 percent of life on Earth. Although they harbour some of the most ecologically vital, yet critically threatened and least protected areas on the planet, these vast areas of ocean have never been properly managed. A fragmented and patchy governance system, with weak regulation and poor enforcement, has left them vulnerable. An ever-increasing number of human activities, from fishing and shipping to mining, is putting high seas life and habitats in jeopardy. They are buckling under the impacts of overexploitation and pollution, and the services they provide, including food security and climate change mitigation, are under pressure.
Although it’s a major win, the agreement we reached at that momentous IGC meeting in March is just the beginning. Protection of critical ocean ecosystems that will become possible under the new legal framework can only be implemented once the Treaty has been signed and then ratified by at least 60 countries. This process can be woefully slow (some Treaties have taken decades), but we all know that’s not an option. It’s imperative that this Treaty enters into force quickly, so the High Seas Alliance is setting an ambitious goal for our governments to rally around: to fast-track ratification by at least 60 nations by the next UN Ocean Conference in June 2025.
Once it becomes an international law, the High Seas Treaty will provide a framework and clear process for us to start governing these shared global commons properly for the first time. Nations will have a greater say in decisions regarding activities that could harm marine life in the high seas through more robust and consistent environmental impact assessments. They will also have a coherent roadmap to establish the world’s first networks of high seas marine protected areas MPAs. Given that less than 1% of the High Seas are fully or highly protected today, we urgently need well-managed, effective MPAs to realise the target of protecting at least 30% of our ocean by 2030, which scientists say is essential to secure a healthy ocean. To speed the process up, the High Seas Alliance and its members are already preparing proposals for the first eight MPAs, so that they’re ready to be actioned the moment the Treaty enters into force.
Importantly, the Treaty will provide developing States with the practical and financial support they will need to implement ocean protection, and sets out to fairly share the benefits derived from marine genetic resources (the genetic material of plants and animals that can be used to develop things like new medicines and cosmetics).
The High Seas Treaty hails a ray of hope for the future. It demonstrates that multilateralism can prevail as we stand at the brink of planetary tipping points, and shows us that it is possible to put collective ambition and commitment ahead of the greedy and destructive self-interest of a few, for the sake of all life on Earth.
We have a huge task ahead to transform this political accord into action in the water. Yet the historic milestone we reached in March shows us that, by working together, we can create the collective wave of enduring support needed to inspire our governments to ratify the High Seas Treaty in record time.
Find out more about the High Seas Treaty by watching the recording of our webinar, on the Road to Ratification here.
About the author:
Bec was born on the south-east coast of Australia, and is passionate about the ocean and celebrating the diverse beauty of our planet. She has an Honors Degree in Environmental Science and has been campaigning for over 20 years, primarily on ocean issues. In 2017, Bec established the European campaign Our Fish to end overfishing and restore a healthy ocean ecosystem, and has recently started as Director of the High Seas Alliance, working to protect life in the global ocean. She is based in lutrawita/Tasmania, Australia.
This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.