A humpback whale swimming in the ocean

The High Seas Treaty will help protect marine life in oceans that fall outside national boundaries. Image © le bouil baptiste/Shutterstock

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Historic treaty to protect the world's oceans finally agreed

Nations have reached a historic agreement to protect the world's oceans from exploitation.

The new High Seas Treaty, which has been 20 years in the making, will increase the number of protected areas in international waters and work to regulate activities such as fishing, shipping and mining.

'The ship has reached the shore.' 

These words by conference president Rena Lee of Singapore were met with cheers and a standing ovation as UN member states reached a landmark agreement for marine conservation.

The new High Seas Treaty will be critical to enforcing the 30x30 pledge to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030, which was made during last year's UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15.

Delegates from 193 member states reached the agreement late Saturday night at the UN headquarters in New York. It concludes two decades of negotiations to protect vast areas of the ocean that currently fall outside national boundaries. 

Muriel Rabone, an expert on the deep ocean at the Museum, says, 'It really does feel like a landmark moment to finally reach an agreement. It's been a long time coming with all the negotiations, and the effort that the delegates and everyone has put into this treaty is immense.'

'It's a really positive step, but now it's the beginning of the next phase, to ratify the treaty and determine how it will be implemented. So this is where a lot of the real work begins.'

Delegates at the conference give standing ovation as the high seas treaty is agreed

Delegates from 193 member states reached the agreement late Saturday night at the UN headquarters in New York. Image © Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore

Why is this treaty important?

The world's oceans are essential for supporting life on Earth. These ecosystems cover about 71% of the Earth's surface and produce half the oxygen we breathe. However, almost two-thirds of this area lies outside national boundaries.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was established in 1982, allowing countries to fish, ship and conduct research in international waters. But only 1.2% of these areas are protected, and a lack of permit requirements has led to the high seas being vulnerable to overexploitation.

Environmental groups have previously expressed concerns about the effects of the unregulated exploitation of resources, such as deep-sea mining, which could be toxic for marine life and create disturbances in animal breeding grounds. 

'There is a lot of potential that this new treaty can support the 30x30 framework and also start building a connected network of marine protected areas, which is essential for species to migrate relatively undisturbed,' says Muriel.

'The other major point is that this treaty will help us tackle the massive knowledge gaps of the deep sea.'

'This is really going to support any design of protected areas. There are new models now that have a more dynamic approach, where we may need to shift these areas as a result of climate change or where particularly vulnerable marine ecosystems are identified.'

A fishing trawler with two nexts ready to catch shrimp

The new treaty will limit fishing, shipping and deep-sea mining in protected areas. Image © Split Second Stock/Shutterstock

What have countries agreed to do?

The new treaty aims to establish vast marine protected areas to prevent the loss of wildlife and ensure that resources are equally distributed between nations.

The protected areas established in the treaty will limit the exploitation of resources from the deep seas. Stricter regulations will be put on activities such as deep-sea mining and fishing, and routes of shipping lanes will also be restricted.

Issues such as fishing rights and funding have held up negotiations for years, but in the most recent talks, concerns over the sharing of marine genetic resources were also a major sticking point. 

Marine genetic resources are biological materials derived from plants and animals that are used to benefit human society and are used in things like pharmaceuticals and food.

The global south led the talks on ensuring that resources are to be fairly distributed so that poorer nations would also benefit.

The High Ambition Coalition, which includes the US, the EU and the UK, played a key role in moving talks forward and made compromises to get the final agreement across the line.

Countries will be meeting again in the future to formally adopt the agreement and work will then begin to start implementing the treaty. 

'It's really exciting to have this global consensus and this global agreement about what we all recognise as important for marine conservation and improving knowledge on the remarkable biodiversity in the deep sea,' says Muriel.

'I think having these shared goals is what helped to push this treaty to the finish line. Everyone is behind the need for conservation and for better knowledge of the deep sea.'

'At times like these, when things feel quite politically fragmented, it's exciting that countries can come together and agree to improve conservation with those big goals in mind.'