Over the weekend, member countries of the United Nations reached a landmark agreement to protect the world’s oceans—after a decade of negotiations! The urgently needed treaty squeaked through barely in time to save marine habitats from a slew of perils—including deep sea mining. We explain why the High Seas Treaty really matters.
First, some background
Defining the ‘high seas’: Until now, the oceans were governed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—which was signed in 1982. And that took over 25 years of negotiations! The law gave each nation sovereignty over 200 nautical miles of water off their coastline—defined as its Exclusive Economic Zone. But any part of the ocean beyond that limit was called the ‘high seas’—which was not subject to any national or international law.
A khichdi of regulations: Over the years, countries have forged a mish mash of smaller agreements that often focus on specific areas—such as fishing, shipping, mining or fossil fuel extraction. Many pay little attention to marine conservation—and none of them are comprehensive:
Rules that do exist are piecemeal, fragmented and weakly enforced, meaning activities on the high seas are often unregulated and insufficiently monitored leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
Data point to note: Only 1.2% of international waters are protected, and only 0.8% are identified as “highly protected.” As one expert aptly puts it, “The current structure of managing human activities on high seas is not a whole lot more rigorous than the Wild West.”
I don’t even want to ask how bad it is…
It is bad. The lack of a global framework left the door wide open for abuse—which has grown exponentially over the decades.
Have ship, will overfish: The UN convention provided rich countries with a critical loophole. It required nations “unable” to exploit their fishing waters to allow foreign fisheries to catch the "surplus.” Today, companies from China, US, Japan and the EU send their fleets around the world—making vast profits by overfishing with impunity. Point to remember: long distance fishing is only profitable because of the juicy subsidies—amounting to $35 billion a year—offered to these companies by their governments.
The endangered zone: The latest assessment of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that 10% of all marine species are at risk of extinction. Just last year, 44% of all abalone shellfish species entered the IUCN Red List. Another red flag: sharks and rays in the open ocean have declined by more than 70% since 1970.
Apart from overfishing, marine ecosystems are threatened by climate change. The seas act as the planet’s sponge—soaking up the effects of human activity:
Oceans, which regulate climate across the planet, have blunted the effects of climate change on land by absorbing carbon dioxide and excess heat caused by burning fossil fuels. But that’s taking a toll on the oceans, making them hotter and more acidic, with less oxygen.
FYI: the oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the world’s excess heat over recent decades.
A new deep sea threat: Some of the greatest treasures on our planet lie in the deepest stretches of the ocean—a wilderness more uncharted than the moon. There is an increasingly urgent debate over whether and how humans should exploit these natural resources.
The 1982 UN convention set up the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to settle these matters—but member countries have never been able to agree on a common code. The convention also contained a disastrous clause: if a country applies to start mining, the ISA has two years to produce a code. If it fails to do so, mining can proceed without any regulation.
The ticking clock: In 2021, the tiny island of Nauru triggered this “two year rule”—announcing plans to allow a Canadian company to begin seabed mining for rare minerals in the North Pacific. Frantic efforts to frame a code repeatedly failed last year. So this new oceans treaty has arrived in the nick of time to prevent an underwater free-for-all.
Why this is a big deal: Deep sea exploration offers great promise and peril. According to experts, the high seas have “probably the largest reserve of undiscovered biodiversity left on Earth. Every time scientists go out there, they find species new to science.” Sea beds also have rare minerals needed for sustainable tech like electric vehicles—which are a must to prevent catastrophic global warming. But we can just as easily destroy these precious habitats—and trigger disastrous ripple effects that will be felt worldwide. Remember: the oceans are connected to one another.
Ok, so what will this new treaty do?
Right now, the member countries have agreed to the broad contours of the High Seas Treaty, which will do the following:
One: It will place 30% of the world’s international waters in marine protected areas (MPAs). Now, we don’t know the exact rules that will govern such areas, but there will be “restrictions on how much fishing can take place, the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities like deep sea mining.”
The big win: The location of these areas is critical as they have to be connected—since many species are migratory and may be forced to travel across unprotected areas. So it's very good news that MPAs will be decided by a simple vote—and will not require a consensus—which would allow a single country to block their creation.
Two: The treaty agrees that valuable “genetic resources” will be shared by all nations. Here’s why this matters: oceans are a potential gold mine of materials from plants and animals that can offer huge breakthroughs in food or pharmaceuticals. Example, a potential cure for cancer. But rich countries have the resources to identify and profit from these discoveries—leaving poorer nations out in the cold. So it became one of the biggest sticking points during the negotiations:
Developing nations said that they had a right to share in both scientific knowledge and if possible future profits. Wealthier nations countered that, if companies weren’t able to get sufficient return on investment, they might lack the incentive to invest in marine research.
That they arrived at an agreement, at least in principle, is a critical breakthrough.
Three: Last but not least, member states have agreed to regulate seabed mining—which puts the peril posed by Nauru’s application to bed. According to the International Seabed Authority, "any future activity in the deep seabed will be subject to strict environmental regulations and oversight to ensure that they are carried out sustainably and responsibly.” So yay!
But, but, but: There is a very long road ahead—filled with crater-sized potholes:
The treaty must first be formally adopted at a later session, and then it only enters "into force" once enough countries have signed up and legally passed it in their own countries. Dr Simon Walmsley said: "There is a real delicate balance, if you don't have enough states it won't enter into force. But also need to get the states with enough money to get the impact. We are thinking around 40 states to get the whole thing into force".
It’s a little too early to break out the champagne. But let’s also not forget that we’ve travelled great distances just to get here. The UN first set up a committee to discuss ocean protection back in 2004. So, we’ve come a long way baby!
The bottomline: We leave you with this crystal-clear quote from a marine expert: “The oceans are a vital part of what makes our Earth livable, not just for marine biodiversity but for all life on earth.” Enuf said.
New York Times and BBC News have the most detailed explainers on the treaty. The Guardian charts the long winding road to achieving this milestone This World Economic Forum column is good at summing up what is wrong with the current UN convention. TIME did an excellent cover story on the deep sea mining debate.