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Seventy-plus nations sign historic high seas treaty, paving way for ratification

Sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean.

Sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean. Image by Vincent Kneefel / Ocean Image Bank.

  • As of Sept. 22, 76 nations and the European Union had signed the high seas treaty while gathered at the 78th U.N. General Assembly in New York.
  • After signing the treaty, each nation must ratify it. Then, once 60 nations have ratified the treaty, it will come into force after 120 days.
  • The high seas encompass two-thirds of the world’s oceans, but only 1% currently has protected status.

Seventy-six countries and the European Union have now signed the high seas treaty, signaling interest in ratifying the agreement designed to protect marine biodiversity in international waters.

The signing of the treaty is a significant step in a global effort to protect the high seas, areas of the ocean beyond national borders, which have historically remained ungoverned and unprotected. The high seas encompass two-thirds of the world’s oceans, but only about 1% currently have any kind of protected status.

For nearly two decades, U.N. member states belabored the text for the high seas treaty, also known as the BBNJ (biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction) agreement, but failed to agree upon it. Then, in March 2023, nations finally reached a consensus on various issues about governance of the high seas, including how to share its resources; how to conduct environmental impact assessments; how to establish networks of marine protected areas (MPAs); how to offer support to nations in the Global South to achieve treaty objectives; and also how to resolve disputes and fund work related to the treaty’s goals.

In June 2023, nations formally adopted the treaty after the text was translated into the U.N.’s six official languages. But until this week, the treaty remained unsigned.

More than 70 nations and the European Union signed the treaty at the 78th U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) taking place between Sept. 18 and 26 in New York. More parties may sign before the end of the event. Countries will also have two more years to sign the treaty if they don’t sign at the UNGA.

Migrant fishers haul a shark aboard a longline vessel in the mid-Atlantic in 2021. Image © Tommy Trenchard / Greenpeace.

After signing the treaty, each nation must ratify it, a process that involves approving it according to their own internal procedures and then notifying the other parties that they agree to be bound by the treaty. Once 60 nations have ratified it, the treaty will finally come into force after 120 days.

“It’s huge to see that so many countries actually did sign on the first opportunity to do that because it creates momentum for it entering into force,” Jessica Battle, senior global ocean governance and policy expert of WWF, told Mongabay. “But now we need to make sure that countries are actually ratifying the agreement into their national legislation then — and quickly.”

The ratification process will differ for each country, and therefore take different amounts of time. Also, countries aren’t required to ratify within a specific time frame, making it difficult to anticipate when the treaty will be implemented. However, Battle said she believes many states intend to “go through the ratification process quickly.”

Experts say the ratification of the high seas treaty is necessary to fulfill the commitment of the  Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, agreed in December 2022. Less than 10% of the world’s oceans are currently protected, mainly within nations’ exclusive economic zones, or EEZs, according to the Marine Conservation Institute’s MPA tracker.

“As we start the Race for Ratification of the High Seas Treaty, we must not under-estimate the opportunity before us,” Rebecca Hubbard, director of the High Seas Alliance, said in a statement. “Ocean temperatures have hit record highs, marine life — and all our lives — are under unprecedented pressure. To survive, it is critical that the new High Seas Treaty enters into force as soon as possible so that we can accelerate international action to restore planetary health and defend the lives and livelihoods of billions of people worldwide.”

Banner image: Sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean. Image by Vincent Kneefel / Ocean Image Bank.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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