“Currently, there are no comprehensive regulations for the protections of marine life in this area,” stated Oceans Project Director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, Liz Karan. 

On Saturday March 4th, almost 200 countries came into agreement and signed a monumental treaty for the protection of marine life in the high seas – a historical and long awaited environmental win. The high seas are a huge stretch of water, covering about 60% of the Earth’s ocean surface, sometimes called the world’s last true wilderness. The treaty provides the legal tooling to establish and manage protected areas in the fight for the preservation of ocean biodiversity. It also holds the right to evaluate the potential damages of commercial activity before production and devise a pledge by signatories to share ocean resources. 

“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” stated Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic, Laura Meller. “We have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent.”

These waters hold hundreds of thousands of marine species and ecosystems, each with a circulatory purpose. The resources within also support global, local fisheries for billions and act as a crucial buffer for the climate crisis. Human activity is adding immense pressure on the ocean and the inhabitants within – surface temperature is at a record high, the deterioration of ecosystems is more common than ever, and overfishing has caused an imbalance in the food chain and an excess depletion of resources – leaving the waters highly vulnerable. 

As of right now only 1.2% of international waters are protected, and only 0.8% classify as “highly protected.” The new signed treaty aims to successfully fill in those unprotected gaps and leap forward towards the goal of protecting at least 30% of global waters by 2030, according to the US Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. This will also be a vital step towards meeting the biodiversity pledges made at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal this past December of 2022. 

This treaty agreement is working off a two decade long process when this conversation first arose. Back in 2004, the UN created an ad hoc group to discuss ocean protection, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the organization created resolutions and processes to start developing the treaty. After years of preparation, 2018 was the year negotiations were put into effect. Last year’s negotiations were seen as the final chance for the world’s oceans – major discussion points were finalizing the creation of the protected areas, and that costs and equity were shared equally among all signing nations. Many developing countries may not have, or had the technology to ensure the needed funding or participation in necessary scientific research. 

“If we want the high seas to be healthy for the next century we have to modernize this system – now. And this is our one, and potentially only, chance to do that. And time is urgent. Climate change is about to rain down hellfire on our ocean,” stated Professor of Ocean Science at the University of California Santa Barbara, Douglas McCauley.