Ocean protection goals on the line as UN meets for high seas treaty talks

Whales in Maui, United States. (Unsplash/guille pozzi)

Countries are meeting over the next two weeks in New York for the last stretch of talks to strike a deal on protecting the high seas, which will be crucial to deliver on recently agreed ocean conservation goals.

After nearly two decades of negotiations, observers are cautiously hopeful that countries will be able to iron out the remaining sticking points and conclude a legally-binding agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond their national jurisdictions – known as international waters or high seas.

At the last round of talks in August 2022, several countries, including the United States and Russia, reportedly held up negotiations due to diverging views on issues including sharing benefits of marine resources.

Why protecting the high seas matters

The ocean is home to nearly 242,000 known species and feeds around three billion people worldwide, not to mention its key role in regulating the climate. But climate change, pollution, shipping, overfishing and other human activities are causing lasting damage to marine habitats. In a major achievement at the biodiversity summit in Montreal in December, countries agreed on a series of targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, including to protect 30 per cent of oceans by 2030.

Read more: Cop15 strikes historic deal to protect 30 per cent of Earth – at whose expense?

With the high seas making up two thirds of the ocean’s surface, agreeing on rules to govern the waters beyond 200 nautical miles off national coastlines will be crucial to achieving the target, according to observers.

For now, less than eight per cent of the ocean is under some sort of protection. For the high seas, the number is even lower, with a mere one per cent of it being part of a marine protected area.

The biodiversity deal doesn’t specify what portion of the protected areas should be from the high seas.
Pepe Clarke, practice leader for oceans at WWF International, told Geneva Solutions: “Consistent with the overall target of protecting 30 per cent of the ocean, it's reasonable to expect that at least 30 per cent of the high seas would also be protected.”

Deciding what and how to protect

There are two types of measures, recognised by the Convention on Biodiversity, that countries can resort to to safeguard the ocean, including the high seas. The first one is establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), where human activities such as extraction of oil and gas or fishing are limited or banned. It entails the highest level of protection.

Countries can also apply other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), meaning protection or management arrangements that generate biodiversity benefits, despite it not being the main purpose.

“One of the classic examples is a drinking water catchment area. It's protected so that you can have clean and plentiful drinking water. But its outcome is that it protects the forest and the associated ecosystems,” Clarke said, adding that conservation experts have been heatedly debating the pros and cons of OECMs.

“On the positive side, people see that it allows for a more diverse range of conservation approaches, including by local communities. On the other side, people are concerned that governments or industry may seek to include enormous areas of the ocean that aren't actually meaningfully conserved in this OECM category.”

MPAs can also have different levels of protection. Highly or fully protected areas, for example, allow little or no fishing or extractive activities.

“Those areas tend to deliver a much stronger ecological response, with fish populations coming back faster and the ecosystem as a whole recovering more quickly,” said Clarke.

“Then you have a whole spectrum of management arrangements, some of which might allow recreational or subsistence fishing, as well as a concerningly large number of marine protected areas that actually still allow high impact industrial fishing, including in some cases trawling and dredging.”

“Ultimately it's national governments that decide what counts in their own country,” Clarke added.

What about the high seas?

When it comes to international waters, a patchwork of international bodies and treaties govern and regulate activities like fishing, shipping and seabed mining. The high seas treaty would oversee the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity.

“In general, there's no mechanism or legal framework to establish MPAs in the high seas,” Minna Epps, head of ocean team at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told Geneva Solutions, noting that some specific mechanisms exist for certain parts of the high seas.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources can, for example, designate protected areas in the Southern Ocean, but the process is long, requiring consensus from state parties, Epps said.

Conservation experts are expecting that the high seas treaty will help create a network of MPAs in the high seas to prevent disruptive activities such as seabed mining – extracting of minerals and metals from the sea floor.

Read more: The race to write the rulebook on deep seabed mining

Chile is already working on seeking the establishment of an MPA to protect two seamount chains home to precious marine life that extend beyond its territory, which also contains cobalt and other mineral deposits that could peak the interest of mining firms.

Countries have yet to sort out the details of the process. The draft text suggests that proposals for protected areas would be brought before the parties to the agreement and require a two third majority vote in favour to be approved.

OECMs could also be an interesting part of the mix as long as they respect conservation standards, like the ones IUCN has developed, to avoid “blue washing”, according to Epps.

“The benefits of being sector driven is the fact that it promotes cross sector collaboration, and it could also help avoid some of the funding or capacity gaps that MPAs have faced” due to a lack of resource allocation, she said.

Where will the money come from?

Money will be a key topic of discussion as countries will also have to figure out how to fund and enforce these protection measures. “It's great to have an implementing agreement, but if it doesn't come with significant financial resources, then it's not going to work,” said Epps.

The draft text includes a proposal for a special fund to be created to support capacity building, conservation and restoration as well as sustainable use of marine resources. But countries will have to decide who will be required to contribute to the fund and whether on a voluntary or mandatory basis. The Global Environment Facility is also mentioned as a possible funding mechanism.

As with other negotiations, developing countries are expecting a strong commitment from their wealthier counterparts to help them implement the agreement. If strong enough, it could encourage developing states to ratify the agreement and accelerate its implementation, Epps said.

A shrinking window of time

If the agreement has been nearly 20 years in the making, it couldn't be more timely. After two years of delays from Covid, countries only have seven years to reach the 30 per cent biodiversity goal by 2030.

If countries manage to strike a deal on the high seas this month, it will likely be several years before its impact starts to show, depending on how many ratifications are required for it to go into force. Countries are leaning towards 30 ratifications, according to observers.

“It's not like the gavel goes down and OECMs and MPAs are going to pop up left right centre, but it is essential to have this agreement,” said Epps.

In the meantime, capacity building will be key, according to Epps, to help developing countries get ready to implement the agreement when it comes into force.