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Historic treaty adopted to protect biodiversity in the high seas

On Monday, June 19, 2023, in an unprecedented agreement, members of the United Nations adopted the first-ever treaty to protect marine life in the high seas (the waters outside national boundaries covering almost half of our planet’s surface). 

Although this treaty has been under discussion for over two decades, efforts to implement it repeatedly stalled until March this year. Delegates at an intergovernmental conference held by the U.N. General Assembly then agreed to take major steps in providing the world’s oceans a fighting chance to maintain their immense biodiversity. 

Moreover, this treaty’s adoption follows another historical accord reached by world governments in Montreal in December 2022, known as “30×30” and including a commitment to protect 30 percent of land and water that are important for biodiversity by 2030.

Significance of the high seas treaty 

Although oceans produce most of the oxygen we breathe, while also absorbing carbon dioxide – a feature making them critical in reducing carbon emissions that exacerbate climate change – currently only one percent of ocean areas in the high seas are protected. 

The new treaty, which will be open for signatures on September 20 and will take effect after it is ratified by 60 countries, will create a legal framework to manage conservation of ocean life and establish marine protected areas in the high seas. The protocol will outline ground rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for commercial activities in the oceans.

The timing is critical

According to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the adoption of the treaty comes at a critical time. The oceans worldwide face several major threats. These include the disruption of weather patterns and ocean currents caused by climate change, the alarming rises in sea temperatures, and the massive losses of marine biodiversity due to overfishing, over-exploitation, and ocean acidification. 

“Over one-third of fish stocks are being harvested at unsustainable levels. And we are polluting our coastal waters with chemicals, plastics, and human waste,” he said.

In addition, the treaty will also establish sound principles to share “marine genetic resources” that are continuously discovered by scientists in the high seas.

This move will be crucial for developing countries who are currently unable to access potentially new lucrative ingredients for medicines and cosmetics due to lack of funding to finance expeditions.

High seas treaty is a “win for all life”

Following the treaty’s approval, the Group of 77 – a U.N. coalition of 134 mainly developing countries and China – called it “an exceedingly important day for biodiversity,” hailing their successful struggle to achieve benefit-sharing and funding to help implement the treaty once it is ratified. 

Similarly, the Alliance of Small Islands, for which climate change and sea-level rise can have devastating impacts, claimed that the adoption of the treaty will have major implications on their members’ livelihoods, cultures, and economies.

However, Russia declared that it will distance itself from the text of the agreement, which they find unacceptable since it undermines the provisions of several international agreements, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to Sergey Leonidchenko, the head of the Russian Mission’s legal section, the treaty thus fails to “reach a reasonable balance between conserving and sustainably using the resources of the ocean.” 

Regardless of these criticisms, the treaty remains “a win for all life on this planet,” as Greenpeace campaigner Chris Thorne put it. “Countries must now ratify it as quickly as possible to bring it into force so that we can protect our ocean, build our resilience to climate change, and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people,” concluded Rebecca Hubbard, the director of the High Seas Alliance.

More about ocean biodiversity 

Ocean biodiversity refers to the variety of life forms that exist in the world’s oceans. This includes not only the multitude of different species – from microscopic plankton to the largest whales – but also the range of ecosystems and habitats in which they live, such as coral reefs, seagrass meadows, deep-sea trenches, polar ice caps, and mangrove forests.

Each ocean region and depth zone has its own unique community of organisms, influenced by factors such as light availability, temperature, salinity, nutrient availability, and pressure. Biodiversity tends to be highest in shallow, warm waters, such as tropical coral reefs, which are often referred to as the “rainforests of the sea” due to their exceptionally high species diversity.

Marine biodiversity plays crucial roles in maintaining the health and function of the planet. It supports a range of ecosystem services, including:

Food provision

The ocean is a significant source of protein, supporting commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing.

Carbon sequestration

Phytoplankton in the ocean absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to regulate the global climate.

Oxygen production

Marine photosynthetic organisms, including phytoplankton and seaweed, produce over half of the world’s oxygen.

Medicinal resources

Many marine organisms produce unique compounds that are used in medicines, including treatments for cancer and other diseases.

Cultural and recreational values

People derive a lot of enjoyment and inspiration from marine environments, supporting tourism and recreational industries.

Unfortunately, ocean biodiversity is under threat due to human activities. Overfishing, pollution (including plastic waste and oil spills), habitat destruction, and climate change are causing declines in marine species and degradation of marine habitats worldwide. Coral reefs are particularly at risk, with warming waters leading to coral bleaching events.

Conserving ocean biodiversity is an urgent task, requiring international cooperation – such as the High Seas Treaty. A range of approaches is needed, from establishing marine protected areas and sustainable fishing practices to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Scientists are continually researching and monitoring marine biodiversity to understand its dynamics and devise effective conservation strategies.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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