Governments formally adopt High Seas Treaty, paving the way for greater ocean protection

Posted on June, 19 2023

NEW YORK (19 June 2023) – UN members today formally adopted a High Seas Treaty aimed at conserving marine life and restraining harmful activities across the two-thirds of the ocean that lie beyond national jurisdiction. The text was agreed last March following a marathon negotiating session, but additional time was needed for translation into UN languages.  

“The high seas are humanity’s greatest global commons, and they are a vital part of our planet’s life-support system. But only about 1% of the high seas is currently protected,” said Pepe Clarke, Oceans Practice Leader, WWF International.

“Last year, governments around the world committed to protecting and conserving 30% of the ocean by 2030, and the formal adoption of the High Seas Treaty is a key milestone on the path to achieving that vitally important global target.”

Iconic marine species like whales, sharks, turtles and tuna range freely between national waters and the high seas. The current low level of protection leaves oceanic species and ecosystems exposed to the impacts of unsustainable industrial fishing, shipping and other human activities. The High Seas Treaty finally provides a mechanism for establishing marine protected areas in the waters that sit outside the control of individual countries. 

Following its adoption, the treaty is open for signature by UN member states and subsequently needs to be ratified by national governments; the treaty enters into force when 60 countries have ratified it.

“The ocean cannot wait. It has taken nearly 20 years to adopt this treaty. Over that time period, industrial fishing has taken a heavy toll on the high seas, depleting wild fish populations and driving an alarming decline in oceanic shark populations. Nations must now swiftly ratify this treaty and start identifying areas of the high seas for protection immediately,” said Jessica Battle, Senior Global Ocean Governance and Policy Expert.

In addition to allowing the establishment of high seas marine protected areas, the treaty establishes a framework for environmental impact assessment in the high seas and will fill the gaps in the current patchwork of management bodies. The anticipated result will be better cooperation and less cumulative impact of activities on the high seas, such as shipping, industrial fishing and other resource exploitation.
Hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zygaena), Fiji