Historic Treaty Protects Marine Life in the ‘High Seas’

The United Nations agreement will help conserve 30 percent of the planet’s oceans by 2030

woman smiles at desk as people applaud
Conference president Rena Lee of Singapore announces an agreement was reached on Saturday. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore

Nearly 200 nations have agreed to a legally binding “high seas treaty” that will help the United Nations reach its pledge of protecting 30 percent of the planet’s oceans by 2030. After two decades of preliminary discussion, two weeks of negotiations at U.N. headquarters and a nearly 40-hour final session, the countries finally reached a deal on Saturday.

Now, the treaty can establish marine protected areas in international waters, which would regulate fishing, shipping and deep sea mining.

“It is indeed a historical milestone, and it’s certainly good news for all our ocean defenders out there,” Minna Epps, a marine biologist and director of the Ocean Team at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, tells Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “I think it’s been long overdue.” 

Individual nations usually control the waters and sea floor within 200 nautical miles of their shores. But the remaining area—about two thirds of Earth’s oceans—is considered international waters, which means it’s not under the jurisdiction of any one government. Only about 1.2 percent of those waters are currently protected, and until now, no agreement existed to specifically safeguard marine biodiversity there, per the New York Times’ Catrin Einhorn. Other fractured agreements on shipping, mining and fishing are supposed to take biodiversity into account, but this hasn’t always been the case.  

“The current structure of managing human activities on high seas is not a whole lot more rigorous than the Wild West,” Lisa Speer, director of the international oceans program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells the Times.

The oceans support global fisheries, house 94 percent of the planet’s wildlife and are a crucial protector against the effects of climate change. The stabilize Earth’s climate by producing about 50 percent of all our oxygen, absorbing 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions and taking in 90 percent of the world’s excess heat. But still, much about this watery habitat remains unknown.

“If you imagine a big, high-definition, widescreen TV, and if only like three or four of the pixels on that giant screen are working, that’s our knowledge of the deep ocean,” Robert Blasiak, an ocean researcher at Stockholm University, tells BBC News’ Esme Stallard. “We’ve recorded about 230,000 species in the ocean, but it’s estimated that there are over two million.”

Protecting international waters will help species vulnerable to overfishing and pollution and give them a chance to recover, Ngozi Oguguah, chief research officer at Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, tells BBC News

The treaty still has a long way to go before it’s actually implemented—countries will still need to officially adopt the agreement in a later session and legally pass it in their own governments. But the major sticking points were hammered out, and nations agreed not to reopen discussions on it.

The last few points of disagreement included the process of creating marine sanctuaries and how nations might equitably share marine genetic resources, or biological material from ocean life that could be useful for things like pharmaceuticals and food. 

“What happens on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” Jessica Battle, senior global ocean governance and policy expert for the World Wildlife Fund, says in a statement. “The High Seas Treaty will allow for the kind of oversight and integration we need if we want the ocean to keep providing the social, economic and environmental benefits humanity currently enjoys.”