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“The ship has reached the shore”: New treaty to protect ocean life in the High Seas 

Environment Programme / Partner story

Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash  

On 4 March 2023, applause and cheering broke out in a crowded United Nations (UN) conference room. After 36 hours of non-stop negotiations – and a 20-year journey to reach this point – UN member states formally agreed to the High Seas Treaty, which will safeguard life in the area of the ocean beyond countries’ national waters – known as the High Seas. 

“The ship has reached the shore,” said conference president Rena Lee, marking a historic moment in the protection of the largest habitat on earth. 

The High Seas are home to millions of species, and hold some of our earth’s richest areas of biodiversity: 

“Many marine species, such as whales, tunas, sharks, and turtles, spend much of their lives on the High Seas, migrating through the ocean from feeding to spawning and breeding grounds,” says campaign strategist Nathalie Rey, in a blog to celebrate the agreement. “This ecologically vital area is among the least understood parts of the planet… more is known about the surface of the moon than about the deep seabed of the High Seas.” 

The High Seas account for almost half the planet’s entire area, yet less than 1.5 per cent of this ocean is protected by cohesive laws. The legally binding treaty agreed in March is a major step forward in changing this. 

It will set a clear pathway and legal framework to establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), helping the UN reach its pledge to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s oceans by 2030. When designed well, MPAs regulate potentially harmful activities, such as overfishing, shipping, and deep-sea mining. Overfished species will have the chance to recover, protecting the livelihoods and food sources of coastal communities for the long term. 

Scientific research will also be approached with careful consideration. Genetic material found in marine life is attracting significant interest for its use in new drugs and cosmetics, for example. The treaty rules that all marine genetic resources from the High Seas must be shared fairly – both in terms of giving scientists access to data regarding the samples, and sharing commercial benefits arising from their discovery. 

“Ultimately the international community will have a far greater say and transparency on decisions that could harm High Seas biodiversity,” says J. Charles Fox, executive director at Oceans 5, a collaboration of international funders dedicated to protecting the world’s five oceans.  

It is one of a vast range of organisations whose commitment and persistence have brought the treaty to life.  

Oceans 5 funds networks that protect our seas through results-focused conservation projects worldwide. A guiding focus is the two highest ecological priorities identified by marine scientists – stopping overfishing, and establishing MPAs. 

One of the networks that Oceans 5 supports is the High Seas Alliance, a partnership of 50+ not-for-profit organisations from around the world. Members work together to inspire, inform, and engage the public, decision-makers, and experts to strengthen High Seas governance and conservation. It also cooperates towards the establishment of High Seas protected areas. 

Since its foundation in 2011, the alliance has been working on the progress of a treaty that first surfaced in UN discussions in 2002. Alliance members have shared their expertise on marine protection to steer and strengthen the treaty through a marathon of discussions, recommendations, conference negotiations, resolutions, and agreements – including a lengthy postponement during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Oceans 5 funded the High Seas Alliance directly, and also leveraged other contributions, helping to introduce the alliance’s work to donors, not-for-profit organisations, governments, and other stakeholders who could make a difference. This sustained and collaborative approach created a far greater impact than one funding source alone could achieve. 

“With this Treaty we have an historic chance to protect our ocean from the ever-increasing onslaughts of over-exploitation,” concludes Rebecca Hubbard, director of the High Seas Alliance. “Following the agreement in March, the treaty was formally adopted in June. The eyes of the world are now on at least 60 nations to ratify the treaty by the next Oceans Conference in 2025.” 

Oak Foundation has supported Oceans 5 since its creation in 2011, to help provide more funding to address ocean issues. This work is supported by our Environment Programme, which is helping to safeguard our future by restoring our connection to nature, and changing the ways we feed and fuel our world. You can find out more about the High Seas Alliance on their website.