New UN Treaty in the Works to Protect the World’s Waters

While the term “high seas” typically calls to mind plundering and pirates, it means something a little different in the context of international politics. Currently, about two-thirds of the world’s oceans are defined as the “high seas,” waters that are regulated outside the law of individual nations. Because they are unclaimed and uncontrolled, it is easy for enterprising parties to exploit the oceans resources through overfishing, deep-sea mining, and other consumptive practices. Thankfully, the UN decided in December 2017 to begin discussions for the creation of potential policies that would protect the biodiversity and natural resources of the oceans.

Currently, the UN has a number of measures in place that work to protect certain aspects of oceanic life. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in 1982, which created a set of rules and responsibilities for the nations of the world to abide by while utilizing the oceans. This legislation establishes a coastal boundary of 200 nautical miles from any shoreline and allows nations to use or conserve those waters as they see fit. Other international organizations such as the International Seabed Authority, the International Whaling Commission, and the International Maritime Organization also promote the preservation of biodiversity and oceanic health. Unfortunately, there still exist some legal gaps, which make the high seas particularly vulnerable.

Planet-wide threats facing the high seas include more acidic oceans, higher water temperatures, reduced oxygen levels, and changes in ocean currents. Overfishing is also disturbing fish stocks as fleets of highly efficient ships take from fish populations without reservation. Wealthier countries take significantly more fish from the ocean, totalling around 70% of yearly catches. Furthermore, more recent discoveries, like deep sea mineral deposits and useful deep sea species create an economic interest in the resources of the ocean. For example, in 2017 a group of scientists exploring an underwater mountain discovered a high concentration of tellurium, a rare element used in solar panels. While mining these minerals could provide economic benefits for mining companies, the excavation process can harm the environment. With the lack of current regulation in most of the open ocean, natural resources could be rapidly over consumed.

So what will the new UN treaty do and look like? Part of the treaty will likely involve the creation of Marine Protected Areas, which currently cover about 5% of the world’s oceans. Different research groups are exploring different iterations of these potential marine reserves in order to maximize both conservation and economic effectiveness. The creation of these reserves is, and will likely continue, to be opposed by countries with large high seas fishing fleets who, for now, freely reap the benefit of the seas. Countries and corporations who benefit from consumption of the ocean’s resources do not want these restrictive Marine Protected Areas or rules for use of the high seas to inhibit their actions. Other focuses of the potential treaty include the creation of environmental impact assessments, and the sharing of marine technology and genetic resources.

As negotiations continue, countries, scientists, civil society, and private interests will all fight to promote their interests. On one hand, groups that are able to benefit from the current lack of regulation, like fishing heavy countries or mining companies, will likely fight to preserve the status quo. Because of the impact of these parties within local and international economies, the argument of opposing parties will be seriously considered and valued. Meanwhile, scientists and conservation leaders are working to convince the public and voting nations that marine biodiversity is in great peril and needs more thorough protection. Hopefully an effective global consensus will be reached: one that encourages the health and conservation of the biodiversity of the marine world.