The ocean. That vast, profound, dazzling azure blue and seemingly endless body of water that cradles the planet we call home and defines it from space. An incredibly rich natural resource whose beauty, bounty and mystery are the stuff of legend.
The ocean provides food, oxygen and climate regulation
The ocean provides more than half the oxygen on the planet. It provides food and critical nutrition for billions of people and millions more livelihoods across a range of ocean sectors from fishing and aquaculture to tourism, maritime transport and renewable energy. A thriving ocean is key in ensuring coastal defences during increasingly volatile weather and storms, especially in vulnerable coastal communities, cities and states. The ocean is our most important carbon sink, absorber of excess global warming and buffer against climate change.
Almost two-thirds of the planet’s surface is ocean – and the seas make up 95% of the Earth’s total habitat by volume. But, incredibly, only 1% of the high seas has up until now been under any protection protocol and just 39% of the ocean falls under the national jurisdiction of individual countries. The rest? It has effectively amounted to a briny Wild West.
First come first served, winner takes all, here today, gone tomorrow. The result has been an agonising period of overexploitation, with too little regard for the health of the natural resources it harbours – and with complete impunity.
The historic High Seas Treaty
But finally, the blinkers have been removed. After more than a decade of talks and negotiations, Member States of the United Nations have agreed a High Seas Treaty that will ensure the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. For the first time in history, rules will be in place to effectively manage and govern that vast blue wilderness we depend on for so much of our lives – 99% of which has been until now ungoverned.
Using marine resources responsibly
The High Seas Treaty includes an agreement to impose strict protection of the ocean outside national borders and rules for the sustainable use of its resources. It’s not about putting nature in a bell jar to remain untouched – but rather, applying a precautionary approach to using marine resources responsibly in this ‘Wild West’ of the high seas, to ensure that we are not depleting ocean ecosystems and leaving nothing for tomorrow.
By providing the tools to establish and manage marine protected areas, the new treaty is a massive contribution to putting into practice the UN’s Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in December 2022 in Montreal at the Convention on Biological Diversity. Here, countries pledged to protect 30% of ocean, land and coastal areas by 2030 (known as ‘30×30’).
The new High Seas Treaty stipulates that environmental impact assessments must be completed before any new exploitation of marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdictions. It also features provisions to allow for the equitable sharing of knowledge, technologies and benefits from marine genetic resources.
The ship docks
National governments still need to formally adopt and ratify this agreement to enable the treaty to enter into force, but as conference President Rena Lee said as she brought down the gavel late into Saturday night in New York: “the ship has reached the shore.” Without a doubt, better protecting the high seas and imposing careful management of marine resources will in turn mitigate the cumulative impact of activities bearing a potentially heavy toll, such as shipping and industrial fishing, in the virtuous circle of a sustainable blue economy that benefits people and nature alike.