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UN Reaches High Seas Treaty After a Decade of Negotiations

Darren Maung
Darren is an aspiring writer who wishes to share or create stories to the world and bring humanity together as one. A massive Star Wars nerd and history buff, he finds enjoyable, heart-warming or interesting subjects in any written media.
Published: March 7, 2023
People walk past United Nations headquarters in New York on March 3, 2023. - UN countries were trying to overcome their differences on March 3 to finally agree a treaty to protect the high seas, a fragile and vital treasure that covers nearly half the planet. After more than 15 years of informal and then formal talks, negotiators are coming to the end of two more weeks of discussions, the third "final" session in less than a year. (Image: DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)

On Mar. 4, after more than ten years of negotiations, members of the United Nations (UN) finally agreed to a treaty that would protect the world’s oceans by 2030. The agreement hopes to save dwindling marine life in the high seas via international cooperation.

The ship reaches shore

The High Seas Treaty is considered a “crucial component” that aims to expand protection of the world’s oceans by 30 percent by 2030. 

It was signed by more than 100 countries in New York on Saturday, taking up five days of non-stop negotiations. Economic interests and the sharing of marine genetic resources were points of contention in the talks, threatening the approval of the treaty.

“There was debate particularly around what a marine protected area is. Is it sustainable use or fully protected?” marine chief advisor of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) UK said.

“The ship has reached the shore,” UN conference president, Rena Lee, said on the final day of negotiations, to the cheers of those present at the conference.

Oceanic protection

The decade-long battle to approve the treaty was mired in disagreements on funding and fishing rights, with the last international agreement — the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea — to safeguard the oceans being signed in 1982. 

Unfortunately, that agreement — which named the protected area “the high seas” and gave countries the right to fish, ship and conduct research — only protected 1.2 percent of the waters. Any wildlife outside of these areas could be victim to overfishing, pollution and other factors.

Under the treaty, protected areas will place limits on how much fishing is allowed, the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities like deep sea mining in levels of 200 meters or more below the surface.

“Any future activity in the deep seabed will be subject to strict environmental regulations and oversight to ensure that they are carried out sustainably and responsibly,” the International Seabed Authority told the BBC.

Richer countries currently possess marine genetic resources — biological material from marine life that could be used for human life like pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food — while poorer nations desire an equal share of the resources.

However, Dr. Robert Blasiak, ocean researcher at Stockholm University, believes that there is very little knowledge on how much resources are actually worth and how they could be distributed.

“So we’ve recorded about 230,000 species in the ocean, but it’s estimated that there are over two million,” he said.

As of now, almost 10 percent of marine life are declared to be at risk of extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported. 


Hopes for the seas

Laura Meller, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic, praised countries for “putting aside differences” to create the treaty to protect the oceans and preserve the livelihoods of billions of people.

“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” she said.

“If we have marine protected sanctuaries most of the marine resources will have the time to recover,” Dr. Ngozi Oguguah, chief research officer at Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, said.

Countries will still be required to meet again to ratify the agreement and perform the preparations for the treaty to be put into effect.

“With the agreement on the UN High Seas Treaty, we take a crucial step forward to preserve the marine life and biodiversity that are essential for us and the generations to come,” Virginijus Sinkevicius, the European commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, said.

The European Union (EU) pledged 40 million euros ($42 million) to support the ratification of the treaty, the Guardian wrote.

“This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said after the treaty was signed.