• Last week, the UN member states agreed on a historic treaty for protecting marine life in international waters that lie outside the jurisdiction of any country.
  • The ‘breakthrough’ followed talks led by the UN during the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) where negotiations were underway for the past two weeks. The treaty is yet to be formally adopted as members are yet to ratify it.

What are the high seas?

Parts of the sea that are not included in the territorial waters or the internal waters of a country are known as the high seas, according to the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas. No country is responsible for the management and protection of resources on the high seas.

How important are the high seas?

  • The high seas account for more than 60% of the world’s ocean area and cover about half of the Earth’s surface, which makes them a hub of marine life.
  • They are home to around 2.7 lakh known species, many of which are yet to be discovered. The high seas are fundamental to human survival and well-being.
  • However, these oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere, are affected by phenomena like the El Nino, and are also undergoing acidification — all of which endanger marine flora and fauna.
  • Several thousand marine species are at a risk of extinction by 2100 if current warming and acidification trends continue.
  • Anthropogenic pressures on the high seas include seabed mining, noise pollution, chemical spills and fires, disposal of untreated waste (including antibiotics), overfishing, introduction of invasive species, and coastal pollution.
  • Despite the alarming situation, the high seas remain as one of the least-protected areas, with only about 1% of it under protection.

How long did the process take?

  • In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS was adopted. The Convention delineated rules to govern the oceans and the use of its resources.
  • But there was no comprehensive legal framework that covered the high seas.
  • As climate change and global warming emerged as global concerns, a need was felt for an international legal framework to protect oceans and marine life.
  • After years of informal discussions, the UNGA decided in 2015 to develop a legally binding instrument within the framework of UNCLOS. Subsequently, the IGC was convened to frame a legal instrument on BBNJ.
  • There were several hold-ups due to the COVID pandemic, hampering a timely global response. Last year, the European Union launched the High Ambition Coalition on BBNJ to finalise the agreement at the earliest.

What is the treaty?

  • The draft agreement of the ‘High Seas Treaty’ recognises the need to address biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems of the ocean.
  • It places “30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas, puts more money into marine conservation and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources,” as per the United Nations.
  • An important negotiating point, and source of tension during the talks, was developing countries’ access to benefits reaped from the commercialisation of resources (especially genetic resources) extracted from the ocean.
  • The treaty has agreed to setup an access- and benefit-sharing committee to frame guidelines.
  • It was also underlined that activities concerning marine genetic resources of areas on high seas should be in the interests of all States and for the benefit of humanity. They have to be carried out exclusively for peaceful purposes.


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