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The Treaty to Protect International Waters

Updated: Jan 2

Aimee Jones assesses the UN High Seas Treaty's potential to safeguard international waters amid ongoing threats to the ocean and marine life from human activity.

overhead view of wave breaking in the ocean

Photo by John Towner

Historically, only 1% of international waters have been protected. The High Seas Treaty, agreed by UN Member States in March 2023, aims to change that.

Deemed crucial for enforcing the pledge that several countries made at the UN Biodiversity Conference in 2022 to protect one third of the sea (and land) by 2030, the treaty provides a means to protect the ocean from pressures caused by human activity.

Protection for the High Seas

The high seas, also known as international waters, make up two-thirds of the ocean. Governance of these areas is difficult as they lie beyond the control of any country. Known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty (BBNJ), the new treaty aims to protect biodiversity by allowing the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) at a global level.

The journey to reaching agreement was a long one. Commenting on the historic deal in March 2023, director of the High Seas Alliance Rebecca Hubbard said, Following a two-week-long rollercoaster of a ride of negotiations and superhero efforts in the last 48 hours, governments reached agreement on key issues that will advance protection and better management of marine biodiversity in the high seas. What happens on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind’.”

The Importance of the Treaty

The ocean makes up 71% of the Earth's surface and has an undeniable impact on human life. In addition to providing sources of food and regulating our climate, the ocean also generates over half of the oxygen on the planet.

With 10% of all marine species at risk of extinction, the urgent need for marine protection is clear. Some of the biggest causes of marine extinction are pollution and overfishing, both of which the treaty could potentially tackle.

Besides marine protection, the treaty also seeks to right inequalities. With so much of the ocean still unexplored and unmapped, there is significant interest in the potential genetic resources it might hold.

The treaty provides for the sharing of marine genetic resources between countries fairly and equitably. These resources could potentially contribute towards food and pharmaceuticals, which could especially benefit poorer countries which might not otherwise be able to recover such resources.

Historically, only 1% of the high seas have been under protection and conservation protocols, despite the fact that the ocean makes up 95% of the world’s biosphere, produces 50% of the planet’s oxygen and soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. - UNFCCC

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The Future of the Treaty

While the aims of the treaty are admirable, there is a lack of detail, particularly with regards to the fishing industry, and questions remain about how MPAs will protect against commercial fishing. Activities will still be allowed to take place within these areas, provided that they are in line with conservation objectives, potentially limiting fishing, shipping and exploration activities.

Even in already protected areas of the sea, marine life can come under threat. In many of Britain's protected areas, for example, industrial-scale bottom trawling still takes place. The government was presented with amendments to the fisheries bill in 2020 that could have seen supertrawlers banned from these areas, but voted against it.

The treaty is a major step in the right direction when looking at climate change and limiting long-term damage caused by humans. However, it is far from clear whether the necessary protections can be put in place quickly enough to match the urgency of the situation. The UN must wait until at least 60 countries have signed the treaty before it can be implemented.

Also critical is the funding. The EU has stated that it will work to ensure ratification happens swiftly, and pledged €40 million in funding towards a Global Ocean Programme. Time will tell whether this is enough to realise the objectives of the long-awaited treaty.


Researched by Alekia Gill & Ellis Jackson / Editor: Laura Pollard / Online Editor: Harry Hetherington


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