Our oceans are under threat. Commercial fishing operations are a massive detriment to marine life and habitats, plastic pollution is clogging waterways and entangling fish, and climate change is warming waters. To make matters worse, international waters – the high seas, which begin 230 miles from shore – are akin to the ‘wild west’, governed by a patchwork of organisations and agreements making protection of these vital ecosystems considerably complex and resultingly limited.
So, who is responsible for addressing those threats in international waters? Who will benefit by research and discoveries made on the high seas?
The UN’s High Seas Treaty, which is the culmination of UN talks that began in 2004, aims to answer those questions. Signed on 4th March 2023, it creates a legal framework for designating swathes of international waters as protected areas and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a clear framework for cooperation among nations to address issues such as overfishing, pollution, and marine habitat destruction in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
“This is a really positive step,” says Daniel Davies, a member of Palladium’s Nature Based Solutions team. “The fact that we’ve got everyone around the table to discuss the setting of ambitious goals, like 30x30, is important.” For some, the treaty is an essential stepping-stone in enabling the world to meet the 30x30 goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, an ambitious target that’s part of the broader UN-led land and marine conservation commitment.
What’s also critical, Davies adds, is the focus on equity. “The treaty makes it so that research conducted in international waters is more accessible and inclusive for developing countries. It’s quite literally like gold mining in some areas of the high seas and it’s important that there’s a framework in place to ensure that everyone has a seat at that table.”
This proved to be a sticking point throughout the talks as nations argued over how to split or share the genetic resources found in international waters, which are often used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. In addition, one of the more critical parts of the Treaty is that it will allow the creation of international marine protected areas, where activities like industrial fishing or deep-sea mining would be restricted.
"It’s a massive step in the right direction as it’s the first major international treaty on marine habitats for nearly 30 years.”
“I’ll be eager to see how this plays out,” adds Bernadette Howlett, Palladium Managing Director. “The actual practicality of implementing marine protected areas is difficult to control, manage, and uphold. Realistically, how can we protect huge areas of open ocean from destructive fishing and mining operations?”
“The oft-cited difficulties of surveillance, enforcement and monitoring of large scale marine protected areas remain considerable, alongside the staggeringly high costs for implementing an effective marine protected area (MPA).”
Howlett notes that Palladium, with non-profit organisation Kyeema, are looking at ways to support the expansion and alignment of four Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Central Province, Papua New Guinea, to meet the ICUN Green List Standard. This standard is internationally recognised for protected and conserved areas.
“Through such project considerations, we have learned that involving local communities in the decision-making process is crucial for the practical implementation of MPAs,” she explains “Moreover, these communities should be at the forefront of both establishing the MPA and aligning with the proposed safeguarding and enforcement mechanisms.”
She’s hopeful that with the framework now in place, the next step will be more work around the effectiveness of those marine protected areas and the availability to better safeguard any designated protected areas. “We’re already seeing technology and investments in policing marine protected areas and addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities, so this couldn’t be better timed.”
Of course, this is only the beginning. Both Howlett and Davies are quick to point out that though the treaty has been signed, it’s not yet ratified. “There’s a long way to go until we can see the outcomes of this framework in action, but it’s still a massive step in the right direction as it’s the first major international treaty on marine habitats for nearly 30 years,” Howlett notes.
With such a big treaty comes big opportunities, and while questions remain around marine protected areas and the intricacies of benefits-sharing with local or national economies, there’s still hope that this framework is what’s needed for true action on 30x30 plans and protecting the health and well-being of our oceans.
For more, read 'Will Insuring our Coral Reefs be Enough to Save Them?' or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.