UN Adopts First-Ever International Treaty Protecting High Seas

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The United Nations adopted a pact commonly known as the High Seas Treaty, which establishes the first-ever framework for governing practices (fishing, mining and oil extraction) in international waters, an issue that has threatened oceanic ecosystems across the globe with little oversight.
  • The High Seas Treaty, officially known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty, is the first-ever international attempt to govern international waters.
  • Before this, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982, was the last attempt to extend governance farther into the ocean, as it added regulations to oceans within 12 nautical miles of countries’ coastlines.
Current Governing Structure
  • At present, every country has the right to access open seas, resulting in large-scale drilling and trawling operations for catching fish and other animals for commercial purposes.
  • High Ambition Coalition, which now has more than 100 countries including India, the US, and the UK, came about and put the focus on ‘30×30’ goals – protecting 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.
What is in the Treaty?
  • Adopted by the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), the “high seas” treaty aims at taking stewardship of the ocean on behalf of present and future generations, in line with the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • Objective: The treaty is meant “to prevent a cascading of species extinctions” brought on by overfishing, oil extraction, deep-sea mining and other activities with environmental impacts that occur in the high seas.
  • Nearly 200 nations signed the document, after agreeing to its terms in March following roughly 15 years of discussion.
MPAs in India
  • A marine protected area (MPA) is a section of the ocean where a government has placed limits on human activity.
  • MPAs in India are designated under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. 
  • There are 31 MPAs in India. MPAs occupy less than 4.01% of the total area of all Protected Areas in India.
  • Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): The legislation establishes large-scale marine protected areas in international waters, which protect biodiversity beyond the 12-mile stretches of water off coastlines protected by individual countries.
  • It also includes guidelines to measure environmental impacts of high sea activities like fishing and mining, and requires countries to present an assessment of those impacts to the UN about any activities that country is doing in international waters.
Major issues in the Waters
  • Overexploitation of global fish stocks: As of 2023, 90% of big fish populations are depleted and 50% of coral reefs are destroyed. Overfishing is a major culprit for fish population depletion, as it is known to interrupt food chains and larger marine ecosystems.
More than 17 million metric tons of plastic entered the world’s ocean in 2021, making up 85 per cent of marine litter, and projections are expected to double or triple each year by 2040.
  • Plastic: Toxic chemicals and millions of tons of plastic waste are flooding into coastal ecosystems, killing or injuring fish, sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, and making their way into the food chain and ultimately being consumed by humans.
  • Global heating is pushing ocean temperatures to new heights, fueling more frequent and intense storms, rising sea levels, and the salinization of coastal lands and aquifers.
What to watch for? The treaty still needs to be ratified by at least 60 members to go into effect. In the U.S., the Senate has to either approve or deny a resolution to ratify a UN treaty—the U.S. is not part of the Law of the Sea. The new agreement “is critical to addressing the threats facing the ocean, and to the success of ocean-related goals and targets.

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