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High Seas Treaty: A breakthrough agreement to protect the deep blue

After at least 15 years of conversations and planning, all 193 members of the United Nations (UN) have agreed on an international agreement to protect biodiversity in international waters. The High Seas Treaty, which was drafted on 4 March 2023 after a 38-hour long deliberation, has been perceived as a historic win by climate activists and scientists. It sets the legal framework for establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in international waters. These MPAs will now be designated by voting instead of requiring consensus, which previously had allowed nations to impede progress of conservation.

Rena Lee receiving a standing ovation after the news was announced. (Credit: Mike Muzurakis/IISD/ENB)

Singapore’s Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues and Special Envoy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs Rena Lee proclaimed with much joy once the High Seas Treaty had been agreed on, “the ship has reached the shore.” The tear-jerking moment was followed by applause and cheers by all UN members present. This unified treaty comes 40 years after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that was agreed upon in 1982 by another Singaporean, Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh.

Making up two-thirds of the world’s oceans, the high seas are home to around 2 million species of marine life. They are international waters that do not belong to any jurisdiction as they lie beyond 200 nautical miles of national seas. This fact is what makes the exploitation and unprecedented extraction of resources in our high seas a cause for alarm.

The treaty highlights the importance of safeguarding oceans that have endured the consequences of uncontrolled practices over time which resulted in ecological harm and a decrease in biodiversity. It intends to promote sustainable utilisation of the planet's oceans and resources, while specifying the responsibilities and rights of nations. Consequently, the treaty seeks to regulate human undertakings such as deep-sea mining, fishing, and shipping lane routes.

As part of the 30x30 global effort that was officially recognized at the UN Biodiversity Conference in December 2022, nations are targeting to protect 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030. Currently, around 17% of land and 8% of ocean are protected worldwide. The High Seas Treaty will be one of the many other initiatives adapted to enforce the 30x30 pledge. To achieve this, Greenpeace data estimates 11 million square km of the ocean must be protected annually between now and 2030.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that until now, only 1.2% of the high seas were protected with 10% of monitored marine species at risk of extinction. (Credit: Greenpeace)

Until now, the regulations governing the high seas have been loosely enforced, leaving the high seas vulnerable to exploitation. This is worrying as ocean ecosystems generate half of the oxygen we breathe, account for 95% of the planet's biosphere, and serve as the world's largest carbon sink by absorbing carbon dioxide.

Talks had been deadlocked for years as there had been several qualms on how to equally distribute resources between nations. A significant concern had been on how to share genetic material from marine life found in the high seas amongst nations. Several important drugs, including treatments for cancer, COVID-19, and the human immunodeficiency virus, were developed from plants and animals residing in the high seas.

The next step would be officially implementing the High Seas Treaty. Nations must first ratify the treaty, which means that they have to formally agree to be bound by its provisions. Once it is ratified, nations are required to incorporate its provisions into their respective national laws, which may involve the enactment of new legislation or the amendment of existing laws. Once formally adopted, the treaty will remain unchanged.

As a city-state situated on an island, Singapore has been facing the harsh consequences of constant ocean pollution washing up on its shores. Ocean Purpose Project is aligned with the High Seas Treaty to strive for a better future for all oceans. With the rising number of highly safeguarded seas, OPP hopes that the treaty will serve as a catalyst for greater awareness and action by nations as well as individuals to safeguard the well-being of our oceans. Extractive ocean industries, including fishing and mining, are both a part of and heavily impacted by the Blue Economy. OPP's ongoing efforts in plastic-to-hydrogen and bioremediation are well-suited to serve as implementation approaches for the High Seas Treaty, and the Oceans at Duke Blue Economy Summit has certainly produced encouraging results regarding mobile offshore wind and OPP's projects.

The High Seas Treaty may seem like a small step towards ensuring an equitable and a sustainable use for oceans. Observers have also noted that the debate over this issue has become a question of ensuring equity between the richer North and the poorer global South.

In an effort to build trust between wealthy and impoverished countries, the European Union pledged €40 million (US$42 million) to facilitate the ratification of the treaty and its early implementation. Additionally, the EU announced US$860 million for ocean research, monitoring, and conservation at the Our Ocean Conference 2023 in Panama, where countries pledged a total of US$19 billion.

Despite certain issues, the High Seas Treaty is definitely a breakthrough and monumental victory – it will lead the pathway for marine life to finally have the space and time to heal from years of exploitation. With time, a more ethical management of marine resources will be implemented and there will be more efficient measures to protect marine biodiversity on a larger scale.

As Greenpeace Nordic Polar Adviser Laura Meller stated, "We can now finally move from talk to real change at sea."

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