“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore,” and with that, UN conference president, Rena Lee announced a historic achievement that would safeguard the world’s open waters. The announcement was greeted with a roaring applause and a standing ovation that brought the President to tears. 

On Saturday March 5, almost 200 countries agreed upon a legally-binding treaty designed to defend the planet's oceans. It’s been almost two decades in the making, and after lengthy negotiations during which delegates deliberated in a conference room for over 36 hours, history was made: a multilateral agreement was achieved on what is being called the High Seas Treaty. 
Let’s talk about what it is and what it aims to do for our global fight against the climate crisis.

What Is the UN High Seas Treaty? 

While the language around this agreement is a great deal of fun, and sounds a lot like pirate lingo, it’s important to know what it all means. 

The High Seas Treaty is a legal framework, or a set of legal tools, designed to protect the oceans that are beyond any country’s territory. The high seas are defined as the waters that are 200 nautical miles from any national jurisdiction; they are international open waters that all countries can use for marine business such as shipping, fishing, and marine research.

The treaty’s formal name is the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty, or BBNJ Treaty for short. Naturally, the High Seas Treaty is a lot more fun to say. What this means is that we finally have legal tools dedicated specifically to preserving the high seas and the biodiverse life within them — this is something that’s never existed before. 

The last global agreement on ocean protection was signed four decades ago, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and it provided very little protection for the boundaryless oceans. 

3 Key Facts About the High Seas Treaty: 

  1. Its official name is the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty. 
  2. It took 19 years to reach an agreement on it. 
  3. Before now, laws to protect ocean waters and biodiversity beyond countries’ territorial boundaries only protected 1.2% of the high seas.

Why Is It Important and How Will It Work? 

The high seas do a lot of work to protect us from the impacts of climate change. Oceans are known as the world’s largest carbon sink and play a vital role in absorbing carbon dioxide — in fact oceans have absorbed 90% of the world’s excess heat over the last four decades. The high seas make up 60% of the world’s oceans by surface area, making them vital to our protection against climate change. 

Before now, the regulations that protected the unbounded open waters were fragmented and not enforced strongly enough to defend the expanse of ocean they needed to protect. CNN reports that only 1.2% of international waters were considered protected, of which, only 0.8% are considered “highly protected.” 

The agreed-upon global oceans treaty, the text of which has yet to be finalized, is also vital to the UN’s 30x30 pledge, which is a global promise aimed at protecting at least 30% of the world’s land and seas by 2030. Experts have gone as far as to say that without the success of the treaty, the pledge is rendered useless. 

It will work by establishing extensive Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that can be used to defend the ocean waters against the loss of biodiversity and wildlife, and will help to distribute marine genetic resources (materials deriving from marine plants, animals, or organisms).

Basically, visualize the high seas as a very large cake, the plan is to slice up that cake. Not to eat it of course, but to give each slice an identity that can be referred to by the law when it comes to its protection. 

What’s more is that the treaty includes the formation of a conference of the parties (COP) that will come together regularly to discuss the logistics and work that needs to be done to protect the high seas, and to hold member states accountable to the details of the agreement. 

What Happens Next? 

Now that the treaty has been agreed upon by UN delegates and representatives, the same delegates have to dedicate half a day to formalizing the text within the treaty — this basically means that they have to package what they’ve written and agreed upon so far in a way that is universally understood. Then, countries around the world have to approve of and ratify the treaty. Once this is done, the real work can get started of establishing MPAs and working to legally protect the high seas can begin. 

How Can I Take Action? 

While these are discussions that are taking place at a high level among UN and governmental leaders, there are still things we can do to play our part in protecting the planet. 

Become a Global Citizen and take actions to help call for immediate climate action and hold world and business leaders accountable for their actions and pledges to care for the earth. You can start right now by emailing world leaders and calling on them to uphold the 30x30 pledge to protect 30% of nature by the year 2030. 

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

What Is the High Seas Treaty? Here’s Everything to Know & Why It Really Matters

By Khanyi Mlaba