A new high seas treaty to close a vital gap in ocean protection

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About 64% of the ocean surface (more than 45% of the globe in total) lies in areas beyond the jurisdiction of a single country and is often referred to as the high seas. With undersea mountains more taller than Everest, the high seas provide a network of marine habitats that support a wide range of species. However, resource exploitation and global climate change are leading to biodiversity loss, placing the high seas under significant threat.

The high seas are a globally shared area governed by international law and policy. While many rules and regulations exist in an attempt to tame this great frontier, none provide a framework to protect the rich biodiversity that lives there.

“While countries invest in the protection of marine species on their own territory, these same species become threatened as soon as they cross the border into the high seas, where they are the responsibility of no one, but of all. We will therefore not succeed in safeguarding the future of our planet without a framework to protect biodiversity in the high seas,” explains Carolina Hazin, marine policy coordinator for BirdLife International.

That is, until now. In response to growing concerns about marine environments, the international community is currently negotiating a new agreement to protect biodiversity and improve governance on the high seas. The new agreement, which will establish a formal legal framework for safeguarding our oceans, is expected to be l one of the most important steps towards protecting the oceans. 7and In March 2022, the countries resumed negotiations of the new agreement in New York, and discussions are expected to continue until 18and March 2022.

“This new high seas treaty is the missing link for effective conservation of marine biodiversity. Imagine a puzzle where you only have the outer pieces of the board, but none to fill in the middle,” says Hazin, who is currently assisting with negotiations on behalf of BirdLife. “This is how marine biodiversity is currently governed. Unless we fill this great vacuum of governance on the high seas, there will be no pretty picture to look at in the future.

However, despite the importance of this agreement, public awareness has not been there, and just like the high seas, the subject remains out of sight and out of mind. At present, a very small proportion of the high seas is protected and the limited surveillance of maritime activities hampers compliance with the regulations in force.

The new agreement will provide opportunities to establish marine protected areas on the high seas and develop environmental impact studies to guide future resource use and limit exploitation. Above all, it will support international cooperation and coordination of activities on the high seas, for example coordination with organizations managing global fishing activities. The agreement is of particular importance for seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels, which may spend more than half of their time wandering, feeding and resting on the high seas. Albatrosses and petrels are part of of the most endangered groups of seabirds, largely due to unsustainable fishing practices on the high seas.

BirdLife International is following the negotiations and calling on countries to adopt conditions that promote effective protection and management of biodiversity through a network of marine protected areas and other area-based management tools. It is important to note that these areas should be established based on the best available scientific data.

“States negotiating the treaty have a huge responsibility in their hands. The high seas occupy almost half the globe and we see biodiversity threatened and lost before our eyes. They are responsible for the future and destiny of this blue planet, Earth,” concludes Hazin.

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