Increasing protection: High Seas

WWF's Global Marine Programme is working to increase international attention for the conservation of these vast expanses of ocean, and immediately protect high seas resources.
 / ©: WWF / Kevin SCHAFER
Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Aleutian Islands, Alaska, USA .

A complex process

Building international support for, and then implementing, high seas marine protected areas (MPAs) is a complex, long-term process. One major obstacle has been the lack of a global legal framework for conserving international waters.

WWF has long worked to set up the necessary international legal framework. And to accelerate protection, we developed a 10-year action plan for high seas MPAs with IUCN (the World Conservation Union) and the World Commission on Protected Areas.

World's first high seas protection

In 2010 we had a major success: the creation of the world’s first high seas MPA off the South Orkney Islands in the Southern Ocean. Covering an area of about 94,000 sq km - slightly larger than Portugal - this biodiverse region is now protected from fishing and dumping rubbish from fishing vessels.

Since then, another 5 high seas MPAs have been created around the mid-oceanic ridge and seamounts in the North-East Atlantic. Bottom trawling, which destroys marine habitats such as corals, is now banned in these areas. 

We were also involved in creating and managing one of the earliest jointly managed MPAs, the Pelagos Cetacean Sanctuary in the Mediterranean which is co-managed by France, Monaco, and Italy.

Protection from industrial exploitation

While international agreements and conventions already govern some aspects of international waters, there is no single overarching legal framework that regulates all activities on the high seas.

WWF is part of the global effort to immediately protect and/or better manage high seas resources and ecosystems threatened by industrial activities. These include unsustainable and illegal fishing as well as sub-standard ships and shipping practices.

For example, we are encouraging the extension of existing international legal regimes and agreements - including codes of conduct, best practices, and voluntary guidelines - to also cover the use of high seas resources, and we are advocating for the adoption by the United Nations of a new Implementing Agreement under the Law of the Sea to protect biodiversity in the high seas.

Our work to prevent bottom trawling on deep-sea and other sensitive marine areas also contributes to the protection of high seas habitats and resources.


Why protect the High Seas?

Around 64% of the oceans - an area covering half the planet - lie beyond the national jurisdiction of any country.

Known as the high seas, these international waters are open-access common areas for everyone.

As a result of commercial activities, many high seas areas have already become degraded. New management regimes are required to protect high seas species and habitats while allowing for sustainable resource use.

More on the open ocean and high seas

Identifying High Seas areas for conservation

WWF has suggested the following criteria for identifying high seas areas in need of protection:

  • Sensitive ecosystems vulnerable to damage from human activities
  • Key migratory corridors and breeding areas for cetaceans and commercial fish stocks
  • Priority areas for scientific research
  • Functionally critical areas like fish nursery grounds and spawning sites
  • Areas supporting rare species or habitats and/or exhibiting high endemism
  • Areas with high species diversity and a range of habitats
  • Locations that will guarantee food security.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.

Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions
Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions