The ocean is home to millions of species, many of which are still unknown to humans. It supplies us with oxygen and each year absorbs nearly 25% of the greenhouse gases we produce by burning fossil fuels. However, vast areas of the high seas, which cover nearly half of the Earth’s surface, remain unregulated.
For more than 2,000 years, Greek mythology has conjured up images of Oceanus and Poseidon with his Trident wielding power over Earth’s most valuable resource — the ocean. But it wasn’t until just 50 years ago that we began to fully understand how important the ocean ecosystem is to life on Earth.
No flag can claim the high seas, but many nations exploit them. As a result, life in the two-thirds of the oceans beyond any country’s territorial waters faces many threats that are largely unregulated, including overfishing and the emerging deep-sea mining industry.
Far from every shore, beyond the jurisdiction of any country, lie the vast high seas, full of life and biodiversity. They cover nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the world’s ocean and harbor life, ranging from whales, turtles, sharks, and dolphins to deep-sea corals, hydrothermal vents, and, experts believe, a variety of undiscovered sea life.
Today the high seas face increasing threats from human activities, including fishing, pollution, and seabed mining, but there is no comprehensive conservation mechanism in place to protect the biodiversity that thrives in these waters and maintain a healthy ocean.
That could soon change. From March 25 to April 5, governments will reconvene at United Nations headquarters in New York to continue negotiations on the first treaty to protect the high seas by 2020.
There’s a proverb I’m fond of: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” I thought of this proverb as I followed the recent UN negotiations around a treaty to establish international governance for the high seas.
The high seas—the part of the ocean that lies outside of any national territory—cover almost 50 percent of the planet, but as of now they are subject to few regulations of any kind. The proposed UN treaty aims to establish guidelines “for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.” With three more negotiation sessions to come, the goal is to ratify by the spring of 2020.
The jury is in on marine reserves: They work. Research has repeatedly shown that fish numbers quickly climb following well-enforced fishing bans, creating tangible benefits for fishers who work the surrounding waters. In fact, many experts believe fishing will only be sustainable if marine reserves are expanded significantly.
That’s why some activists and scientists are now discussing the idea of creating a marine reserve so big it would cover most of the ocean. Specifically, they want fishing banned in international waters.
Recent research suggests fisheries closures would have minimal effect on global food security, but some scientists think the case isn’t so clear cut.
Far offshore are the high seas—waters beyond any country’s jurisdiction and the focus of a contentious debate. The high seas, which cover nearly two-thirds of the ocean’s surface, have recently seen an increase in fishing and other activities, such as deep-sea mining. To protect the biodiversity of this vast environment, delegates attending a meeting currently underway in New York are negotiating for a new international treaty, an addition to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Findings support urgent need for heightened high seas governance and conservation
As States meet at the United Nations for the final round of negotiations towards a possible high seas treaty, a new scientific review of recent ocean research shows more clearly than ever the importance of ocean services, its critical role to humankind and the rate and scale of the changes occurring due to climate change and other human impacts.