Negotiations are underway at the United Nations in New York for what campaigners hope will be the final round of talks on a long-awaited treaty to save the world’s ocean from overexploitation. However, lingering disagreements over parts of the text risk stalling the process.
Two hundred nautical miles out at sea, away from any coastline around the world, an invisible line divides the territorial waters behind from the vast expanse beyond.
From this point onwards, the ocean is governed by no one and belongs to everyone at the same time.
Known as the high seas, these international waters have been treated recklessly and have become a “poorly regulated free-for-all”, according to environmental groups, turning into the planet’s “wild west”.
They are urging nations gathering at the UN in New York until 26 August to adopt an ambitious legally-binding treaty to govern the high seas and protect marine life from harm.
“The high seas epitomise the tragedy of the commons,” Marco Lambertini, WWF International’s director general, said. “Because they don’t ‘belong’ to anyone, they have been treated recklessly with impunity.”
“We need a common governance mechanism for our ocean to ensure that nobody’s waters become everybody’s waters – and everyone’s responsibility.”
18 years and counting
UN member states have been trying for years to reach a global agreement that would protect marine life on the high seas, an area which covers half of the Earth’s surface.
Official talks on creating a treaty for “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction” – or BBNJ for short – began in 2004.
By 2020, they appeared close to agreeing to a deal, but Covid put negotiations on hold for another two years. Campaigners are hopeful that this time around, member states will finally strike a deal.
“There’s definitely an appetite to work and to finish the negotiations, with obstruction from very few countries,” Jessica Battle, WWF’s senior global ocean governance and policy expert, told Geneva Solutions over the phone from the sidelines of the conference.
At the UN Ocean Conference in June, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, warned that the “egoism” of certain countries not willing to accept the ocean belonged to everyone had also stalled the already delayed process and called on states to accelerate their efforts.
“What we'd really like to see is a treaty that is strong enough that it makes a difference … but that is also palatable to enough states to become universal – at least near universal – so that most countries become parties to it,” Battle said.
However, with one week left to go, negotiators in New York remain divided over several crucial issues in the draft treaty text.
What’s in the treaty?
The treaty has four key parts, one of them being the thorny issue of marine genetic resources – how to make sure all nations have access to the ocean’s vast treasure chest and share the benefits from these.
“This is tricky, because here you are looking at companies that have patents over marine genetic resources they can commercialise, and developing countries wanting to ensure that they also have a monetary benefit out of these as well,” Battle said.
“It’s clear that it is going to be very hard to get countries like the United Kingdom, Switzerland, United States, and the European Union to agree to trying to share profits from any industrial use of marine genetic resources.”
Among the issues that member states have been wrangling over is how to share the benefits of species that can be found both in international and national waters. “It’s very complicated when biology and law come together. It doesn’t always work, but it’s fascinating,” she added.
Protecting a third of the ocean
The treaty will also set out new rules for establishing marine protected areas in the high seas, in an important step towards achieving a target called for by environmental campaigners and supported by dozens of countries of putting 30 per cent of the world’s ocean into conservation areas by 2030.
Defining which areas should be consecrated marine protected areas – and what sets them apart from other areas – has been another point of contention for member states, Kristina Gjerde, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) high seas adviser, told Geneva Solutions.
“They are also talking about decision-making powers for marine-protected areas, and who has the power to adopt these measures,” she said, adding that there appeared to be good progress made last week.
The last two parts of the treaty being negotiated are area impact assessments, which states or private companies would have to carry out before conducting any activities in the high seas that could be harmful to the ecosystem – for example mining on the seafloor – and capacity building and technology transfer.
“Here it’s very important for developing states to be able to partake in both the resource use but also generally being able to have the tools to manage their own waters as well,” Battle said.
A treaty to bind other treaties
Different laws and bodies currently exist for overseeing parts of ocean governance and maritime activities, including the International Seabed Authority, set up to regulate minerals activities on the international seafloor, and the International Maritime Organization for regulating shipping.
However, this would be the first treaty specifically focused on protecting marine biodiversity in the high seas. “This treaty is meant to knit all of these together,” Battle said.
“It would be responsible for integrating these various bodies so that there is a holistic mechanism for protecting and conserving marine biodiversity and making sure that it’s sustainably used,” she added.
Without the treaty, marine life in these regions will continue to deteriorate as they are left exposed to overfishing, pollution, mining and other destructive activities, Gjerde said.
“In 2012, states cooperated to ensure healthy, productive and resilient oceans, and just like with climate change, our failure to act now makes this much harder,” she continued.
“We need to come together now and use all we have at our disposal, in order to reverse the trend towards ocean degradation and loss of biodiversity. This is a treaty that should have been in place 20 years ago – but the second best time for action is today.”