High Seas Treaty: A unique opportunity for ocean science

The new United Nations treaty which provides a legal framework for the establishment of vast marine protected areas represents enormous opportunities for ocean science and the building of marine-related scientific research capacity around the world, experts say.

The High Seas Treaty reached at the UN headquarters in New York on 4 March (officially known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty or BBNJ agreement) was concluded after 19 years of negotiations. It is a legally binding instrument and is considered essential to achieving the goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 – agreed to at the 2022 UN biodiversity conference.

Described by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as “crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution”, the treaty is 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 the coast of maritime countries; they are international open waters that all countries can use for marine business such as shipping, fishing and marine research. Before the treaty, laws to protect ocean waters and biodiversity beyond countries’ territorial boundaries applied to only 1.2% of the high seas.

In terms of the new treaty, activities can still occur in the protected areas but only if “consistent with the conservation objectives”, meaning it doesn’t damage marine life. This could mean limiting fishing activities, shipping routes and exploration activities such as deep-sea mining.

The treaty, which took 39 hours to negotiate, was required to strike a balance between the need for conservation, and the exploitation or extraction of resources, not least in terms of ownership of marine genetic resources and access to benefits arising from them.

Richer nations currently have resources to explore the deep ocean, but poorer countries are concerned that benefits are not shared equally, and this has been a central point in the negotiations.

What role for science?

Former chair of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) Professor Peter M Haugan, who was involved in the creation of the UN Decade of Ocean Science (2021-2030), told University World News he has been inspired by the fact that many of the actors connected with the treaty have approached the IOC to discuss the potential of the treaty for science.

Haugan, who is now policy director at the Institute of Marine Research, and a professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Bergen in Norway, said research-based knowledge needs to be at the heart of the BBNJ agreement and urged the scientific community to increase its efforts to influence relevant policy-makers.

“Who knows what marine genetic resources are? What can they be used for? What is their value? For whom? Should they be shared? Can people just go out there and get these resources? Can we make patents out of this?”

An editorial in Nature on 15 March 2023 described the High Seas Treaty as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity for researchers and funders to use every idea and instrument available to preserve the health of the seas”.

Among these opportunities, the editorial referred to the building of research capacity in low- and middle-income countries, improvement in the evidence available to decision-makers and the potential for fresh scientific collaboration.

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