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High Seas Treaty: How the UN wants to protect the oceans

According to the Guardian, “[o]cean ecosystems produce half the oxygen we breathe, represent 95% of the planet’s biosphere and soak up carbon dioxide, as the world’s largest carbon sink”. A short summary of this statement would be that the ocean is of unprecedented importance for the environment and thus also for humanity.

And we all know that the sea and marine life are highly endangered by human activity. Especially the so-called high seas. Those are all parts of the seas that do not belong to the territory of any state. They make up for nearly two-thirds of the world’s waters.

So, what does the international community do to protect the high seas? A year ago, the answer to that would have been “not much”. However, this has changed in the recent past.

On March 4th, after more than ten years of negotiations, the UN member states concluded the so called “High Seas Treaty” in New York in order to ensure fair and regulated protection of the high seas. The agreement, which is seen as a major breakthrough in the general public perception, contains three key aspects.

First and foremost, the contracting states agreed on establishing “marine protected areas” (MPAs) on the high seas. Those areas are under special protection and human activity inside them is only permitted if it does not harm marine life. In December 2022, a UN biodiversity conference was held in Montreal. There, the member states committed on putting a third of the sea and land under protection by 2030 to protect endangered species. However, no legal enforcement mechanism was indicated. With the MPAs coming, this has now changed concerning the seas.

A second crucial point of the agreement is that environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are obligatory for human activity in the high seas. If, for example, a state wanted to make profit from fishing or mining in the oceans, it would have to test first whether the activity’s environmental impact would not be too severe.

Lastly, the contracting states must share all “marine genetic resources” (MGRs) in the high seas. Those are small biological materials from animals and plants in the seas that have a potential use for mankind and are often employed in cosmetics and medicine. As the benefits of using MGRs are supposed to be divided in a fair way between all countries, the agreement can also be seen as one of global justice. Effectively, this is implemented by a financing mechanism for third world countries that do not have the financial means of exploring and economically exploiting MGRs.

Even though the contract is seen as very progressive, there are some critics. Environmentalists opine that its rules are not strict enough. For instance, countries will execute their own EIAs, instead of involving a neutral instance. Moreover, impactful institutions like the International Maritime Organization for shipping and the International Seabed Authority, that regulates mining, are not concerned by the treaty, and can therefore go on with their work as before.

The High Seas Treaty is certainly a decisive step towards protecting our oceans, but does it suffice to put an end to issues like species extinction, overfishing and pollution?

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