UN Adopts High Seas Treaty with Protected Zones and Shipping Limits

UN High Seas Treaty
UN agreed to the first ever high seas treaty which would protect up to a third of the world's oceans

Published Mar 6, 2023 3:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

United Nations delegates completed the first-ever high seas treaty after a non-stop two-day marathon session going beyond the declared end for the fifth round of negotiations. The agreement is being hailed by world leaders, scientists, and environmental groups as it sets in place the first framework for managing the use of the oceans beyond national jurisdiction covering the areas beyond the 200 nautical miles boundaries for countries' territorial waters.

The UN’s Secretary-General issued a statement commending the delegates for finalizing the text to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans. He called the agreement a breakthrough noting that it impacts two-thirds of the oceans, and laying out specific rules for about a third of the world’s oceans.

Agreement among the UN members however was long in coming. Talks toward the treaty began nearly 20 years ago and stem from a 2017 resolution that moves to follow up on a UN recommendation to develop an agreement on the use of global marine resources. The mandate was to extend the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, which came into force in 1994, with four prior rounds of negotiations in 2018, 2019, and 2022 before this weekend’s agreement.

Historically, very little of the high seas has been subject to any direct protection. The waters had been open for fishing, shipping, and research with scientists increasingly expressing concern about the impact of these activities and the role the oceans play in combating global warming. They note that the oceans absorb up to 90 percent of excess warming, while environmentalists have also expressed fears that nearly 10 percent of marine species are at risk of near-term extinction.

“Two-thirds of the ocean has just been exposed to the will and want of all,” said Rebecca Hubbard, the director of the High Seas Alliance consortium of nongovernmental organizations during an interview with The Washington Post on Sunday. “We have never been able to protect and manage marine life in the ocean beyond countries’ jurisdictions,” she said. “This is absolutely world-changing.”

Late on Saturday, Rena Lee of Singapore who was president for the session rose and announced “the ship has reached the shore,” receiving a standing ovation from the delegates on news that the agreement had been reached. The draft text calls for placing 30 percent of the world’s oceans into protected areas and putting more money into marine conservation. It includes sections that cover access to these areas and the use of marine resources. 

Environmentalists immediately reacted positively to the news saying that the agreement builds on the initiatives launched last December at the UN Biodiversity Conference that called for protecting a third of the world’s oceans by 2030. Greenpeace says that 4.2 million square miles of oceans need to be put under protection in each of the next seven years to meet the 2030 target.

“With the agreement on the UN High Seas Treaty, we take a crucial step forward to preserve the marine life and biodiversity that are essential,” said Virginijus Sinkevicius, the European commissioner for the environment, oceans, and fisheries. 

A coalition that included the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and China helped to bring the final agreement together overcoming issues including economic concerns, especially for emerging nations. The EU pledged $42 million to facilitate the ratification of the treaty and its early implementation. Nearly 200 nations approved the final text but to go into force the nations must adopt the treaty, which is expected to take years. 

The agreement provides a legal framework along with the establishment of a conference that will finalize details, meet periodically, and enable member states to be held accountable on issues such as biodiversity and governance. It provides for strict limits on fishing activity as well as addressing mineralization and shipping lanes and provides for nations to coordinate on issues such as environmental impact assessments and share resources.

“What happens on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind,” said Jessica Battle of WWF in a statement. “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.”

The IMO highlighted that it had been present throughout the negotiations and potentially seeking to calm some of the fears highlighted that “ships plying their trade across the world’s oceans are subject to stringent environmental, safety and security rules, which apply throughout their voyage.” The IMO pointed to more than 50 globally binding treaties and recent efforts at enhancing those efforts such as MARPOL and the ballast water management convention. The IMO also highlighted its efforts at keeping shipping away from whales’ breeding grounds, the Polar Code for the Arctic and Antarctic, and the guidance on protecting marine life from underwater ship noise.

It will take time for some of the impacts of the treaty to become fully apparent to the shipping community. While the treaty provides the tools to create and manage marine protected areas it falls to the newly created commission to complete the definitions and determine elements such as if ships will be excluded from operating entirely in the zones.

Environmentalists are also seeking to use the framework to pursue additional elements such as water pollution from ships and further restrictions on ballast water management. With more elements of discharges even in the deep sea coming under regulation some have suggested that the new treaty can be leveraged to stop the use of open-loop scrubbers.

Another of the areas that the threat seeks to restrict is deep-sea mining. The International Seabed Authority which oversees this emerging area said the treaty means that stringent environmental regulations and oversight would now govern any future efforts at extracting minerals from the ocean floor.

Environmentalists and conservation groups are calling the agreement the first step to protecting ocean life and bringing the oceans into the fight against climate change. They are vowing to keep up the pressure to ensure the treaty is adopted and enforced.