The high seas are often called the Wild West of the ocean. These vast oceanic tracts begin 200 miles from shore and fall under no nation’s jurisdiction. And while there are various agreements governing human activities there, there is no comprehensive management framework coordinating them all.
That is now likely to change. The United Nations General Assembly today resolved to begin negotiating an international treaty specifically focused on "the conservation and sustainable use" of marine life on the high seas. Ocean advocacy groups are hailing the announcement as an important move for marine conservation.
"For the first time, instead of negotiating a treaty to manage the removal of marine life from the ocean, the United Nations will negotiate ways to protect it and keep it in the water," wrote Elizabeth Wilson, Director of International Ocean Policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts, in an emailed statement.
The high seas comprise 64 percent of the ocean and 43 percent of Earth’s surface. They belong to no one—or to everyone, depending on how you look at it—and ecosystems there have come under threat as a result of weak management. Less than 1 percent of the high seas is fully protected, according to an infographic on Pew’s website.
The General Assembly’s resolution formalizes recommendations made in January by a working group dedicated to determining whether a high-seas conservation treaty was feasible. It calls for a treaty "preparatory committee" to convene starting in spring 2016 and to report back to the General Assembly by the end of 2017. At that point the General Assembly would begin organizing an intergovernmental conference where the treaty text would be negotiated.
A mounting chorus of voices has been highlighting the importance of high-seas ecosystems and calling for tighter management for some time. For instance, a 2014 report by the Global Ocean Commission found that the high seas take up 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year and keep it out of the atmosphere, among other 15 "ecosystem services" it provides, many of which are threatened by human activities.
"The industrialisation and overuse of the high seas jeopardises the natural wealth of their ecosystems and the services they provide to people. Fishing and shipping continue to inflict harm on high-seas ecosystems. Mining for minerals and new sources of fossil fuels will likely increase the industrial use of the high seas and will further damage their ecosystems," the report states.
High-seas fish catches have an estimated economic value of $16 billion annually. But so-called illegal, unreported, and unregulated (aka IUU) fishing is relatively common there, with widespread use of outlawed fishing gear that takes a heavy toll on non-targeted marine life. In recent years, fisheries scientists have proposed closing the high seas to fishing outright, turning the region into a giant refuge for oceangoing fish species.
While it seems unlikely that a complete fishing ban will be part of the final negotiated treaty, Wilson wrote that it may "chart a course toward creating a network of marine protected areas in the open ocean, which would ensure that special places on the high seas receive the protection they need to remain vibrant, diverse ecosystems."
Of course announcing the intent to negotiate a treaty and actually negotiating one are two very different things (Comprehensive climate change treaty, anyone?) Hammering out an agreement will be a complicated process that is likely to take years, observers agree, and the strength of the final agreement is by no means guaranteed.
Nevertheless, wrote Wilson, “Launching these negotiations marks the beginning of a new era in ocean conservation. The process may be in its early stages, but the commitment made by world leaders should not be underestimated."
- Sumaila, U.R., Lam, V.W., Miller, D.D., Teh, L., Watson, R.A., Zeller, D., Cheung, W.W.L., Côté, I.M., Rogers, A.D, Roberts, C., Sala, E. & Pauly, D. (2015). Winners and losers in a world where the high seas is closed to fishing. Scientific Reports 5: 8481.
- Rogers, A.D., Sumaila, U.R., Hussain, S.S. and Baulcomb, C. (2014). The High Seas and Us: Understanding the Value of High-Seas Ecosystems. Global Ocean Commission.