Historic agreement to protect high seas has researchers ‘ecstatic’

After years of debate and discussion, nations agreed to a High Seas Treaty to protect marine biodiversity and oversee international waters. It is being hailed by researchers as an important conservation step that encourages international research collaboration without hindering science.

“We’re ecstatic,” says Kristina Gjerde, who researches marine environmental law at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “This long-awaited treaty contains many of the vital things we need to protect our oceans.”

The final wording of the agreement was hammered out by delegates to the United Nations Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) at the end of a two-week meeting in New York. The last session, which lasted for 38 hours without a break, ended much later than expected on March 4. “It was excessive, even by UN standards,” says Marcel Jaspars, a chemist and marine bioresearcher at the University of Aberdeen, UK, who participated in the proceedings as an adviser to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “It was crazy. The delegates were so tired.”

Countries have jurisdiction over waters extending 200 nautical miles (370 km) from their coasts. Beyond that are the open seas, which make up about two-thirds of the world’s ocean, or more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. Certain activities are regulated in these waters, including whaling, shipping and seabed mining, through mechanisms such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, overall, the high seas have long been considered the “wild west” of the ocean, with few rules and regulations, especially regarding the protection of biodiversity.

It has long been recognized that a treaty was needed to fill these gaps, given the enormous importance of the high seas for marine life and the global climate. The idea first appeared 20 years ago. In 2017, the UN decided to formally convene an intergovernmental conference to formulate a treaty, but delegates met without achieving their goal in the following years. Although the countries finally achieved this on March 4, they did not have time to formally adopt the treaty. This will happen in the near future at a special BBNJ meeting.

Ships passing by night

The treaty creates several groups — including a scientific and technical body — to oversee regulations and respond to changing conditions. It also emphasizes building research capacity in lower-income countries to ensure equitable access to science and the benefits of ocean discoveries.

The issue of sharing benefits from “marine genetic resources” was the biggest sticking point in the negotiations. Marine life is considered a goldmine for these resources, which include molecules with medicinal uses. But not all nations have the ability to collect or study them, and representatives of developing countries want to crack down on “biopiracy” – rich nations collecting materials just outside their territory and reaping the benefits. The treaty stipulates that monetary benefits from genetic resources “shall be shared in a fair and equitable manner” and used “for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity.” A benefit-sharing committee established by the treaty, made up of 15 appointed experts, will decide what is fair.

“As a Caribbean scientist, I’m extremely pleased” with this aspect of the treaty, says Judith Gobin, a marine ecologist at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, in Trinidad and Tobago. “For too long we have watched research ships go through the night and remove our marine organisms.” Now, he says, “we’re really going to get involved.”

The agreement calls for scientists to add a “standardized BBNJ lot identifier” to genetic data and biological samples collected from marine life, and to notify a clearinghouse of where that data is published, no later than one year after collection. The identifier will be attached to any patents or commercialized product sales resulting from the original research. For researchers, “you’ll just have another number to plug into your spreadsheet,” Jaspars says, adding that most of the logistical burden of benefit sharing will fall instead on those developing commercial applications.

The treaty also establishes a mechanism to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas. This keeps alive the commitment made last year at a biodiversity summit in Montreal that nations will protect 30% of the world’s land and seas by 2030. Importantly, the treaty allows nations to enact MPAs by vote if they fail to reach a consensus. This will be critical to avoid impasses, says Gjerde, who is a senior high seas advisor in IUCN’s ocean team. He points to a situation in the Southern Ocean, for example, where one or two countries have delayed progress in establishing MPAs for more than five years.

For any activities on the high seas that are expected to have a substantial impact, the treaty also requires environmental impact assessments. States will review these assessments and be responsible for approving activities. Most scientific projects probably won’t require such assessments, says Cymie Payne, an environmental governance specialist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. But the assessments will provide a useful central source of information on ocean activities, he adds.

Some scientists had worried that the treaty could require new permits for research projects exploring the high seas, adding red tape to studies that can already be difficult to begin. That didn’t happen. Instead, research cruises should simply make a public announcement of where they’re going and when, Jaspars says. This will give “researchers from low- and middle-income countries the opportunity to join the cruise,” he says.

Agreeing on the text of the treaty was a crucial step, but not the last step. “While there are still significant issues with the text, it is a workable Treaty that is a starting point for protecting 30% of the world’s oceans,” environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement. “Now begins the hard work of validating and protecting the oceans.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on March 7, 2023.

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