World’s First Legally Binding Treaty to Protect the High Seas: Landmark UN Negotiations Open

New York, 4 September 2018: Treaty negotiations to conserve and protect nearly two thirds of the ocean open today at the United Nations (UN) in what is widely regarded as the greatest opportunity in a generation to turn the tide on ocean degradation and biodiversity loss.

Following over a decade of discussions at the UN, the two-week Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is the first of a series of four negotiating sessions through 2020 for a new legally-binding treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction*, commonly known as the high seas. The ocean beyond 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from a country’s shorelines is considered international waters – “the high seas” – and is globally shared. There is no overarching law in place to safeguard its biodiversity or its vital role in provisioning services – such as generating oxygen and regulating the climate.

“The high seas cover half our planet and are vital to the functioning of the whole ocean and all life on Earth. The current high seas governance system is weak, fragmented and unfit to address the threats we now face in the 21st century from climate change, illegal and overfishing, plastics pollution and habitat loss. This is an historic opportunity to protect the biodiversity and functions of the high seas through legally binding commitments” said Peggy Kalas, Coordinator of the High Seas Alliance, a partnership of 40+ non-governmental organisations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University who has provided evidence to inform the UN process towards a treaty said: “The half of our planet which is high seas is protecting terrestrial life from the worst impacts of climate change. Yet we do too little to safeguard that or to protect the life within the ocean which is intrinsic to our collective survival. Protecting the biodiversity of the high seas by bringing good governance and law to the whole ocean is the single most important thing we can do to turn the tide for the blue heart of our planet.”

“Advances in satellite technology and big data processing are helping shed new light on what is happening in the high seas, heralding a new era of transparency in the previously opaque realm of high seas fishing,” said Tony Long, Global Fishing Watch CEO. “Our map and data are revealing the nature and scope of global industrial fisheries, especially important for the high seas. More and better data is one of our most powerful tools in achieving better governance of the high seas, helping to build knowledge, further research, and to emphasise the critical need for a holistic approach to the negotiation of new rules for how we use and protect two thirds of the ocean.”

Through the UN, states will discuss how to protect and conserve the high seas by establishing:

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): MPAs are widely acknowledged as essential for building ocean resilience, but without a treaty there is no mechanism to enable their creation on the high seas.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs): Although some activities are partially regulated in some areas of the high seas, there is no legal framework for conducting EIAs to guard against potential environmental harm.

Benefit sharing and technological transfer: Many countries are concerned that they will not benefit from research into high seas species and will lose out on potentially vast new ocean genetic resources, such as discoveries of marine genetic resources (MGRs) that could provide new pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and other uses. The negotiations will also aim at improving mechanisms to build capacity and transfer technology in developing countries relating to the high seas.

* ‘Areas beyond national jurisdiction’ means the areas of ocean outside the EEZs and continental shelves of individual states i.e. in most cases beyond 200 nautical miles offshore. It includes, as well as the high seas, the deep sea Area as defined in Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (known as UNCLOS), which is the deep seabed beyond the continental shelves of coastal States.

For more information see

Treaty Timeline – the process so far Treaty timeline

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