No country can claim the high seas, but many want to exploit them. As a result, life in the two-thirds of the oceans beyond countries' territorial waters faces many threats that are largely unregulated, from overfishing to deep-sea mining. Now, governments are negotiating the first-even high-seas treaty, which could help its conservation.
The high seas are the part of the ocean that isn’t included in the exclusive economic zones or internal waters of a country. This is to say the high seas are the areas of the ocean for which no nation has sole responsibility for management. They constitute 64% of the ocean surface and nearly 95% of the ocean’s volume; and yes, no one really has any decisive say in what happens in them -- yet.
Nature doesn't really follow human borders. For corals, fish, and the billions of creatures in the seas, it doesn't matter whether they're on one side of the border or the other. But because they're outside of any human borders, high seas ecosystems are not receiving much protection against human activity.
As these areas are far from coastlines, human activities (and their impacts on marine life in those areas) are difficult to monitor and control. But nonetheless, marine ecosystems on the high seas are subject to negative impacts from human activities in many sectors, all compounded by a lack of oversight and comprehensive and coherent governance.
There are almost 27,000 unique species, including reptiles, birds, mammals, fish, and invertebrates, that have been found in these waters, according to the Ocean Biodiversity System. And these are just the once we know about -- there's probably many more we've yet to find out about. Hence, the importance of finding a way to better protect the high seas as soon as possible.
“We can’t have 95% of our global commons left as gangland without the rule of law,” Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and ocean advocate, posted earlier this year. “And unfortunately, that’s the risk you run, when you don’t have specific provisions in international law for those areas that are beyond national jurisdiction.”
A high seas agreement
Back in 2018, after a decade of groundwork at the UN, negotiations began for a treaty focused on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity on the high seas. The proposed agreement is being negotiated under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines countries' rights and responsibilities for the use of the oceans.
The treaty hopes to address gaps in governance policies regarding the high seas. However, after several rounds of negotiations, governments are still trying to solve their differences. Such an agreement would allow the creation of marine protected areas on the high seas, a tool used by countries in their territories to protect marine resources.
Globally, marine protected areas (MPAs) cover almost 8% of the ocean, leaving more than 90% unprotected. Scientists agree this isn’t neraly enough, and argue we need to protect at least 30% of the ocean to safeguard biodiversity. Reaching this objective would be impossible without establishing MPAs on the high seas. Hence the importance of the treaty now being negotiated in the UN.
Almost 50 countries have already joined a “High Ambition High Seas Coalition,” committing to agree on a treaty for the high seas before the end of the year. Some absences include the US and China. “All efforts must be devoted in the coming months to secure this long-awaited treaty in 2022,” Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance, said.
Whether or not this agreement will come to fruition remains to be seen -- and even if it does, enforcement is another deal. But it's a first step forward, and we're so far behind that we need all the steps we can get.