High time for a high-seas treaty

As with many common resources, the high seas are not yet protected by a truly comprehensive, agreed-upon framework. But this must change if there is to be any hope of achieving global biodiversity goals.

A shoal of Pacific sardines in the open ocean.
A shoal of Pacific sardines. Overfishing was the original target of a high seas treaty. Image: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Our planet’s tightly woven, interconnected natural systems are vital to life and livelihoods. Yet with each passing season, we are witnessing the crushing realities of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. In its 2023 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum warns that six of the top ten risks in the coming decade will stem directly from the loss and degradation of nature.

In the face of extreme storms and floods, devastating droughts and wildfires, ocean dead zones, and food scarcity, demands for systemic change have reached a crescendo. Unless we embark on a new course, our crises will only deepen.

Despite the challenge of reaching global agreements in such a fractured world, we have cause for optimism. In late 2022, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) achieved a breakthrough after languishing in relative obscurity for many years.

At the COP15 summit in Montreal in December, countries completed four years of negotiations and approved the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), the most significant intergovernmental agreement on biodiversity in over a decade.

For a new high-seas treaty to make a difference, it must … provide countries with the legal powers to establish and manage a representative network of marine protected areas in the high seas.

Under the GBF, governments have committed to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land, freshwater, and ocean by 2030; improve the sustainability of agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, and forestry; and restore 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems.

The framework establishes multiple pathways for scaling up solutions within and across borders. It includes down payments, financial commitments, and an implementation plan, and it is already spurring action by corporations, governments, and civil society.

But critical work remains to done. On February 20, UN member states gathered in New York to finalise a key piece of the ocean-governance puzzle: a new treaty to conserve and sustainably manage marine biodiversity in the high seas.

The high seas cover two-thirds of all ocean and almost half the planet, and are home to up to ten million species – many of them still unidentified. But much of this biodiversity remains out of sight and thus out of mind. As a result, life in this vast expanse is constantly threatened by weak regulation of activities such as shipping and fishing, and by poor enforcement of existing laws.

The high seas belong both to everyone and to no one. As with many common resources, there is no comprehensive, agreed-upon framework governing conservation and the sustainable use of the ocean outside of national jurisdictions.

But since the same large petrels, leatherback turtles, sharks, and whales that we seek to protect on and off our shores spend much of their lives in the high seas, there is an obvious need for more robust global strategies to protect, manage, and monitor these areas.

Marine life does not recognize legal jurisdictions. For the conservation of migratory species and transboundary ecosystems to be effective, we urgently need a global high-seas treaty, which in turn will contribute to the implementation of the CBD’s ambitious new framework. Without it, the CBD will have much less chance of success. That is because, currently, there are no global powers to establish marine protected areas in the high seas.

Even though the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea obligates states to assess the impact of activities in their waters, there is no global mechanism for assessing activities in the high seas. Instead, there is a patchwork of assessment mechanisms for different bodies that regulate parts of the high seas, but no minimum standards that ensure quality or consistency.

So, what needs to happen at the summit in New York? For a new high-seas treaty to make a difference, it must achieve multiple objectives. The first is to provide countries with the legal powers to establish and manage a representative network of marine protected areas in the high seas, as this is essential to protecting at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.

Moreover, we must dramatically strengthen governance of human activities that affect the high seas, by establishing robust, modern environmental assessment and management standards. And we need to ensure sufficient financial, scientific, and technical support for states that require it.

We will also need a mechanism for sharing the benefits of marine genetic resources fairly and equitably, as well as a voting procedure when all good-faith efforts to reach consensus have been exhausted. Otherwise, one or two countries will be able to block progress even on issues that are supported by the overwhelming majority.

Only through a strong high-seas treaty and bolder action within existing treaty bodies (especially fisheries-management agreements) can we protect the health of the ocean.

We must adapt quickly to new activities like deep-sea mining, as well as to increased shipping collisions with large animals and rising waste, noise, and artificial-light pollution. This requires managing the whole ocean in a more comprehensive fashion. With ocean health declining, maintaining the status quo is not a viable option.

The negotiations for the first international ocean treaty in over 40 years, and the first to target the conservation and sustainable use of marine life in the high seas, offer another opportunity to rebalance our relationship with nature. Building on the momentum from COP15 in Montreal, we must now set a course to address the biggest risks facing our planet in the next decade.

Jennifer Morris is CEO of The Nature Conservancy.Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.www.project-syndicate.org

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