The Earth's primary climate moderator is the ocean; however, its ability to function effectively depends on biodiversity. The rapid climate changes, harmful fishing activities, increasing quantities of plastics and other contaminants, along with a severe rise in demands for resources, mutually threaten marine life worldwide. However, with almost two decades of extensive planning and negotiations, United Nations representatives have recently reached an international consensus to safeguard biodiversity within international waters, covering approximately two-thirds of the world's oceans.
Image Credit: GreenOak/Shutterstock.com
Importance of the High Seas Treaty
The vulnerability of the high seas to exploitation is much more than that of coastal seas. Nations currently possess the freedom to navigate, engage in fishing (sometimes excessively), and conduct scientific investigations within the high seas with minimal constraints.
A mere 1.2% of this area is under protection, while the expanding influence of fishing and maritime transport, the looming prospect of deep-sea mining, and emerging endeavors like the "bioprospecting" of marine organisms place these regions in unprecedented danger.
A Brief Overview
The treaty, the details of which were concluded on March 4th, establishes a foundation for implementing safeguards across previously unregulated marine expanses.
Referred to as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) treaty, its central objective revolves around preserving biodiversity. This is to be achieved through establishing extensive marine protected regions and overseeing marine research, including scientific exploration and commercial endeavors.
How Will the Treaty Protect Endangered Marine Life?
In its recent study, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) discovered that approximately 10% of marine species could be completely extinct in the coming years.
Sharks, whales, and abalone, a form of shellfish, are used for medicinal compounds and food purposes. The research also revealed that around 41% of the marine population is severely affected by water pollution.
Considering the extinction of the fish population, the treaty aims to develop Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) located in the International waters. Although the agreement has not mentioned specific objectives in this regard, it does introduce a novel legal avenue for establishing MPAs within the high seas. This possibility was largely absent in the past.
This advancement guarantees the effective conservation and prudent management of a minimum of 30% of the oceanic area. This objective will be realized by establishing well-connected and impartially governed networks of protected areas, alongside other effective measures grounded in geographic locales.
The target of safeguarding 30% of the world's oceans by 2030 aligns with the trajectory forged during the gathering of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in 2022.
Equitable Sharing of Marine Resources – An Important Step
The term "marine genetic resources" refers to biological matter derived from oceanic plants and animals. These resources may yield societal advantages, encompassing pharmaceuticals and nourishment.
The treaty incorporates the fundamental principle of equity, emphasizing the importance of balanced benefits from utilizing marine genetic resources (MGRs). Within this framework, specific responsibilities are described for sharing monetary and non-monetary assets.
Addressing the financial dimension, a structured mechanism will oversee potential future funding streams. Upon the activation of the agreement, developed nations are mandated to contribute a standardized fee to this mechanism.
A New Framework for Environmental Damage Assessment
As the treaty specifies, endorsing nations must thoroughly evaluate the ecological impacts of activities under their jurisdiction within the high seas. This prerequisite applies particularly in cases where these activities hold the potential to yield effects that are beyond minor disturbances.
States have pledged to formulate novel standards and guidelines for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). Notably, the accord introduces a novel benchmark for environmental assessment of impacts, triggering a much advanced and effective inquiry framework.
What is the Conference of Parties (COP)?
The Conference of the Parties (COP), serving as the governing entity of the treaty, will propel the agenda ahead and serve as a channel for collaboration with established bodies governing fishing, maritime transport, and mining.
Its principal obligation lies in effectively tackling the complex challenges of declining biodiversity and the degradation of oceanic ecosystems, coherently encouraging cooperation among the different entities.
Effective collaboration, particularly the sophisticated interplay of authority with other international and regional organizations, constitutes its central responsibility. The regional fisheries bodies and the International Seabed Authority are foremost among these entities, which hold jurisdiction over authorizations for exploratory activities related to deep-sea mining in designated regions.
Effective Resource Mobilization Setup
The treaty includes a mandate to formulate a "resource mobilization target" for 2030, essentially involving the creation of a funding mechanism to facilitate operational activities.
The financial architecture of the agreement is structured around three integral elements: a discretionary trust fund designated to assist delegates from developing nations in attending the agreement's sessions; a distinct fund designated to receive contributions tied to the marine genetic resource aspect of the agreement; and the trust fund linked to the Global Environment Facility.
Recommendations for Accelerated Implementation
Researchers have presented a thorough framework in npj Ocean Sustainability for the rapid and successful implementation of the treaty. The researchers have advocated for the extensive adoption of the BBNJ Agreement, urging the establishment of a Preparatory Commission (PrepCom), allocating resources, and cultivating partnerships to propel scientific endeavors and enhance capability.
The PrepCom may be assigned the responsibility of laying the groundwork for establishing institutional charters while awaiting the initiation of the new agreement. This entails preparing essential elements such as the preliminary agenda for the initial Conference of the Parties (COP) and its auxiliary entities, preliminary drafts of procedural rules, financial regulations, and proposals on the inaugural budget.
To accelerate the progression, an interim working group can initiate the task of delivering directives for formulating assessments of capacity requirements and priorities at both national and regional levels.
Through collaboration with states and regional entities, this group would pinpoint strategies to carry out these assessments to reflect each country's unique circumstances while ensuring robust backing through financial resources and technical expertise. Initially, having these dedicated teams for administrative and financial affairs would help effectively implement the treaty.
The much-awaited treaty is an essential milestone within the landscape of international ocean governance. It can potentially drive the progress of operationalizing conservation efforts and sustainable utilization of marine biodiversity beyond national boundaries. Nevertheless, substantial efforts lie ahead to fulfill this potential, requiring funds and an effective organizational structure.
Continue Reading: Tackling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with The Ocean Cleanup Project
References and Further Reading
BBC, 2023. What is the UN High Seas Treaty and why is it needed?. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-64839763 [Accessed 9 August 2023].
Depois, . A., 2023. What will the UN high seas treaty mean for protecting the ocean?. [Online] Available at: https://phys.org/news/2023-06-high-seas-treaty-ocean.html [Accessed 10 August 2023].
Gjerde, K. et al. (2022). Getting beyond yes: fast-tracking implementation of the United Nations agreement for marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. npj Ocean Sustain 1(6). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s44183-022-00006-2
Kim, J., 2023. What to know about the new U.N. high seas treaty — and the next steps for the accord. [Online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/2023/03/07/1161196476/un-high-seas-treaty-international-waters [Accessed 8 August 2023].
The Guardian, 2023. High seas treaty: historic deal to protect international waters finally reached at UN. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/05/high-seas-treaty-agreement-to-protect-international-waters-finally-reached-at-un [Accessed 8 August 2023].
The Nature Conservancy, 2023. Ten Things You Should Know About the High Seas Treaty. [Online] Available at: https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-insights/perspectives/ten-things-high-seas-treaty/ [Accessed 9 August 2023].