March 14, 2023 • News Announcements
On March 5, 2023, United Nations (UN) delegates from nearly 200 nations reached a historic agreement to protect marine biodiversity on the high seas, which encompass nearly half of the Earth’s surface area. The agreement, popularly known as the High Seas Treaty, came after more than 20 years of negotiations and persistent effort by a diverse coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) known as the High Seas Alliance.
The High Seas Treaty is being heralded as a monumental win for ocean protection, as it will help pave the way for the development of marine protected areas in the vast areas of ocean that fall outside of national jurisdictions.
With all the news about this landmark achievement, we wanted to learn more about the backstory behind the negotiations and the treaty itself, including what took so long, what finally made it possible, what comes next, and what the treaty will mean for ocean conservation. So, we reached out to our friend and colleague Arlo Hemphill for a brief question and answer session about the treaty. Arlo is the Greenpeace USA Project Lead for Ocean Sanctuaries and Global Corporate Lead, Stop Deep Sea Mining Campaign, and has been personally involved in advocating for the High Seas Treaty for 20 years.
Arlo Hemphill aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza in the Sargasso Sea. © Shane Gross / Greenpeace
I’ve been working on high seas governance and conservation for 20 years now. As the Director for Global Ocean Strategy at Conservation International, we co-founded and sat on the original steering committee of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), an alliance of dozens of organizations around the world who were at that time united in achieving a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling and today remains the biggest NGO coalition working on deep sea mining and international fisheries issues. The strategy behind the bottom trawl moratorium was always to trigger a political response that would lead towards a governance structure to manage and protect biodiversity on the nearly 50% of the planet covered by international waters. The idea was simple: we could get countries to agree to a moratorium, but how could the moratorium be lifted if there was no legal pathway for countries to implement effective protections for the marine environment on the high seas? They’d need to create one …
Later, while with Stanford University, I helped found the Sargasso Sea Alliance, a group of civil society organizations dedicated to the protection of the Sargasso Sea, including the majority of the ecosystem that lies in international waters. This alliance gave way to the intergovernmental Sargasso Sea Commission, a body very much set up to lay the groundwork for a future Sargasso Sea Ocean Sanctuary, should a framework be agreed upon to create such an entity. That framework was just agreed upon.
Finally in 2019, I joined Greenpeace as the USA campaigner on the global Protect the Oceans campaign, the Greenpeace campaign that has been dedicated to achieving this Treaty and eventually delivering on 30×30 for the oceans (30% of the ocean fully and/or highly protected in a global network of ocean sanctuaries by 2030).
There were multiple breakthroughs and changes in position across the ten years that this Treaty was under negotiation. In recent years the biggest obstacle had been polarity across the Global South versus the Global North on the issue of benefit sharing of Marine Genetic Resources (MGRs). This provision of the treaty provides equitable access and distribution of benefits from any new discovery made in international waters, considered the Common Heritage of Humankind under the UN Law of the Sea. The concern here was essentially that corporations from rich, developed nations would have unfair access to discover and develop new pharmaceuticals, fibers, and other products derived from the genes of marine organisms, and that they alone would benefit from them, despite those organisms being considered Common Heritage to everyone on Earth.
For a long time the debate over this issue was polarized between the Global South, which wanted direct profits from every sale of a product derived from high seas MGRs, and the Global North, which wanted softer commitments along the lines of providing capacity building opportunities and sharing data, but not sharing money.
What finally broke the gridlock was a compromise in which the Global North finally put money directly on the table to help developing nations implement the Treaty and create ocean sanctuaries. Essentially, it boiled down to a “cash now” agreement in lieu of a longer term direct sharing of profits, the red tape of which arguably would have hindered investment in R&D and could have literally taken decades before something actually reached the market stage so that profits could be shared.
It’s important to note that this compromise had already been made at the so called “failed” IGC5 talks that were held in August 2022. The problem was that the Global North agreed to too little too late, during the final 48 hours of the meeting when governments could not get word from their capitols on how and if to take the compromise, and under what terms. This development is why many came with a lot of optimism to IGC5bis (the recent meeting in which the Treaty was agreed), despite that there was still significant discord across the draft text.
There’s an informal process of an actual official vote, and then a formal process of ratification during which countries need to bring the Treaty back to their home governments and have it ratified, whether that be via Parliament, Congress, etc. We need 60 ratifications to then formally bring the Treaty into effect. This is a process that will likely take about 2 years.
One of the biggest debates in negotiating the treaty was the role of existing competent bodies (mostly fishery management bodies, but also including things like the International Seabed Authority (ISA), International Maritime Organization (IMO), OSPAR, Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), etc). NGOs advocated for a strong treaty in which a Conference of Parties (COP) would have total power to implement the provisions of the agreement without having to defer to existing bodies that have largely failed us thus far. Fishery nations wanted all power of the new agreement going to those same bodies with the COP having no authority at all. The final agreement was a compromise between these two extremes. This will be most relevant to the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs), as they will have to be joint ventures between the COP and the existing body in the region. So, where the treaty fully provides a pathway for a network of high seas MPAs, they won’t be instantaneous or easy. It will take a lot of effort and political will.
Conversely, we tend to think of these bodies as independent entities, but they are in fact made up of governments—the same governments that just agreed to this Treaty. The Treaty itself puts new responsibilities on States themselves. So, taking the ISA as an example, the Treaty doesn’t directly mandate that the ISA does anything, and, it even gives them a say in any new MPA that would include seabed protections. But the countries that make up the ISA now have new commitments to protect the marine environment, and new standards for things like Environmental Impact Assessments, that they must abide by, regardless of what the ISA does or does not mandate of them.
A real world example of how this might work is if you make a commitment to your family to go on a low carb diet to lose weight. Your commitment doesn’t mandate the local restaurant to stop selling pizza, but it obligates you not to order it when you go there.
The Treaty also allows the COP to take over fully in areas where no competent bodies exist, or if competent bodies fail to take reasonable action in cooperation with the COP. So, there’s a backup provision to get the MPAs in place.
The world as a whole agreed to the 30×30 goal (to preserve 30% of Earth’s land and seas) during the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP in Montreal this past December. Getting to 30% of the world’s ocean was nearly impossible prior to this agreement, as it would have required the majority of all Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs; areas of ocean under national jurisdiction) to be put into protected areas. This Treaty was necessary to fulfill that goal.
Beyond the dozens to hundreds of great media hits that came out last week, the official website of the Treaty is https://www.un.org/bbnj/.
After that, the best resource is probably the High Seas Alliance: https://www.highseasalliance.org/
Many thanks to Arlo for taking time to answer our questions, and congratulations to the High Seas Alliance and countless other individuals, organizations, governments, and other actors who worked to make this history treaty possible!