Why Protecting the High Seas Matters

August 26, 2022

Representatives from countries around the world and dozens of civil society organizations are huddled and working around the clock at UN headquarters in New York this week for negotiations “on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).”  The “BBNJ Agreement,” also referred to as the “High Seas Treaty,” is one of several important environmental negotiations concluding in the next four months.  In addition to this treaty, we are also hoping to conclude one on conserving and restoring biodiversity, we are launching a two-year negotiation of an agreement to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, and continue the hard work of  implementing the Paris Agreement now that we finished all the “rules” for implementation at the meeting last November.  The decisions we take in these agreements and negotiations will have a make or break impact on the health of the place we all call home. 

The high seas span two-thirds of the ocean and cover half the planet.

The first one of these covers what is known as the high seas that currently has only limited governance and is often unmonitored.  Right now, there are rules and regulations only covering certain commercial activities like fishing, dumping, seabed mining, and shipping — but there is not a single international agreement governing conservation or protection of high seas biodiversity hot spots, and there are only limited regulations for endangered marine biodiversity itself — things like migratory birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals have limited protections. 

Here are 5 reasons why the BBNJ Agreement matters. 

  1. The ocean is BIG.  The high seas refer to the part of the ocean that is beyond any country’s jurisdiction. The high seas span two-thirds of the ocean and cover half the planet!  It’s important all countries agree on how to safeguard this big part of our planet. 
  2. Biodiversity.  The high seas are among the last truly wild places on earth.  They are home to bountiful marine biodiversity, including some of our most iconic and valued species.  They support habitat and migratory routes that serve as “rest stops” for whales, sharks, sea turtles, and seabirds.  They are also home to remarkable ecosystems, such as towering seamounts (think underwater mountains) and deep-water coral gardens. 
  3. 30×30.  Scientists tell us that it is critical to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030 (30×30) if we are to support healthy marine ecosystems and biodiversity globally.  Although thousands of marine protected areas have been established around the world, they cover only a tiny percentage of the ocean.  Currently, less than one percent of the high seas are in marine protected areas.  If we are to achieve the goal of 30×30, we need to establish, manage, and enforce protected areas in the high seas.  
  4. Climate change.  Conserving the high seas through marine protected areas is not only good for biodiversity, but also critical for our climate.  The ocean plays an important role in regulating our climate — absorbing carbon dioxide and excess heat from the atmosphere, regulating temperatures, and driving our global weather patterns.  Supporting the health of the ocean through marine conservation and the protection of blue carbon ecosystems helps ensure the ocean continues to serve its critical role in our climate system. 
  5. The time to act is now.  Discussions on this treaty have been going on for a long time.  After almost 20 years, the world is on the verge of completing an agreement that will shape the health of our ocean for centuries to come.   

It is often said that the ocean is too big to fail.  That is simply not true — the ocean is more fragile than most people understand.  It is also more essential.  It provides the oxygen we breathe and food for tens of millions of people.  And it has been a source of inspiration for humanity.  In fact, as Dr. Jane Lubchenco says, the ocean is too big to ignore.  And this week in New York City, the United States will help to lead the way in making sure it is ignored no more.