Thursday, March 23, 2023

The UN High Seas Treaty: a new era in ocean protection

The UN High Seas Treaty: a new era in ocean protection

Just 13% of our oceans can be counted as wilderness: free from human activity. Most of those wilderness areas are in the high seas, which are outside national boundaries. As they are free from legislation, these areas are open to overfishing, pollution, shipping and deep-sea mining, which can threaten marine wildlife and ecosystems.

Until recently, these valuable ecosystems had no legal protection against human activity. But after 20 years of talks, a legal framework in the form of the UN High Seas Treaty has been agreed. The treaty will establish vast marine protected areas (MPAs) to safeguard biodiversity, protect against the loss of wildlife and share out the genetic resources of the high seas. A conference of the parties (COP) will be established for governance, legislation and accountability.

But conservationists say that the High Seas Treaty leaves room for improvement. There are questions about the model for environmental impact studies for planned activities on the high seas. Activities that are already regulated, such as fisheries, shipping and deep-sea mining, will not have to carry out the environmental impact assessments laid out by the treaty. This is only for now, however: in future, the new requirements will strengthen the existing rules that govern them.

Protracted negotiations surrounded marine genetic resources (MGR): biological resources that have an actual or potential use for humanity. The genetic material of krill, coral, deep-sea sponges, seaweeds and bacteria have attracted scientific and commercial interest for use in cosmetics and medicines. As marine biologists, we understand the significance and value of MGR. Our benthic studies act as a permanent record of the flora and fauna found on the seabed, for use in identification and verification. And as the deepest part of the high seas is 6.2 miles below sea level, there’s still a lot to be discovered.

The UN High Seas Treaty signals a strong and unified approach to protecting the oceans’ ecosystem.

“What happens on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind,” said Jessica Battle of WWF in a statement after leading the group’s team at the negotiations. “We can now look at the cumulative impacts on our ocean in a way that reflects the interconnected blue economy and the ecosystems that support it.”

Read more about our benthic surveys on sediment and fauna, and about our Sediment Profile Imagery (SPI).