The High Seas Treaty: 2 Expert Perspectives

The high seas treaty — an agreement among UN members many years in the making — took substantive steps toward adoption on March 4, 2023. The treaty is being heralded as enormous progress toward protecting marine life outside of national boundaries. “The new High Seas Treaty addresses many of the governance gaps that have plagued the ocean, setting out clearer ways to conserve biodiversity in the high seas,” wrote the High Seas Alliance

“That an agreement was reached between 193 nations at all, was a huge achievement,” wrote The Guardian, “but conservationists say it leaves significant scope for improvement. In particular, countries agreed that existing bodies already responsible for regulating activities such as fisheries, shipping and deep-sea mining could continue to do so without having to carry out environmental impact assessments laid out by the treaty.”

Bioneers reached out to two ocean conservation experts for their reactions to the high seas treaty.

Dave Phillips

Executive Director, Earth Island Institute
Director, International Marine Mammal Project

Marine Sanctuaries are critical for the survival of whales, dolphins, and myriad other species that are depleted and endangered. I’ve been part of efforts to establish the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary, but these are such rare examples and took decades to enact. 

Ocean areas outside of the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of countries cover roughly two-thirds of the world’s oceans, and these areas have largely been free-for-alls.  

The new UN treaty emphasizing ocean biodiversity protection beyond national jurisdiction is a big step forward. Once 60 countries ratify it, it will drive the establishment of marine protected areas that are desperately needed. The Treaty is specifically designed for establishing a legal framework for addressing ocean pollution, unsustainable fishing, climate change impacts, and plastic pollution. It’s not a panacea but is a monumental chance to set a new course for the protection of ocean life.

Rod Fujita

Senior Scientist and Director, Research and Development, Oceans Program
Environmental Defense Fund

How important is the treaty?

This treaty is an historic milestone and a great achievement of the international community. In this time of increasing focus on narrow self-interest and isolation, it’s heartening to see that nations can work together to answer difficult, long-standing questions about the global commons of the high seas, like “who gets to benefit from the genetic resources of the high seas” and “who gets to become empowered by doing research in the high seas” and “how should the resources of the high seas be used, and how can they be protected”

What are your hopes for the treaty?

The treaty’s provisions for creating more equitable access to high seas resources and more equitable access to the scientific and economic benefits to be gained on the high seas seem particularly important to me. If these are implemented, they could transition the current situation of might makes right, in which the powerful and well-capitalized get the benefits, to a world in which nations work together to explore and sustainably use high seas resources and then share the benefits. Provisions in the treaty for creating marine protected areas and the call for sustainable use of high seas resources rightly recognize the importance of conservation as fundamental to ensuring streams of benefits that can improve human welfare while protecting the intrinsic values inherent in marine biodiversity and ecosystem processes.

What concerns do you have about the treaty?

I fear that sustainability, which is embodied within the treaty as the imperative for resource use, is no longer enough. In the context of catastrophic climate change, widespread habitat degradation, and massive biodiversity loss, the planet urgently needs active care and regeneration. It’s no longer enough to just prevent harm or to ensure that we don’t take so much that the resource base collapses. I am also concerned about the lack of mechanisms for acting on the newly required environmental impact assessments. While this is a useful requirement, information rarely results in any kind of action on its own. Either intrinsic motivation based on care for the planet and for each other, or lacking that, powerful external incentives from strong governance or market forces aligned with stewardship are required to motivate action based on knowledge. The new treaty does not seem to create these kinds of incentives, so I fear that many of the well-intentioned measures of the treaty, which run counter to profit-maximization incentives will not be implemented or be effective.

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