United Nations Fails – High Seas Treaty Sinks

Two months ago the Sea Save Foundation delegation participated in the United Nation’s Ocean Conference – Sustainable Development Goal #14. Delegate after delegate took the podium and passionately expressed their nations’ support for the protection and the conservation of oceans.
Scientists are concerned that the failure to protect open oceans will spell disaster not only for marine species, island communities and fisheries but for the entire planet.

Climate Change, the effects of which we are seeing daily in news headlines, is largely buffered by oceans. Ocean decline will cause a domino-like effect on the climate of our planet.

The United Nations has tried to pass the High Oceans treaty four times before, and this fifth-time failure to reach consensus was unexpected by most and is an ominous omen.

Why Should We Care?

This is a global accord that would safeguard marine life on the high seas—those areas of the world’s oceans outside the purview of any one nation. The United Nations has given lip service to the importance of signing this treaty for many years. 

The project is of utmost significance for safeguarding global biodiversity and reducing the effects of climate change. Despite the fact that existing laws and treaties cover marine and maritime matters that fall under a country’s purview, very little of it applies to the high seas, which account for around 95% of the world’s oceans in terms of volume.

By regulating overfishing, mining, pollution, and other practices that endanger biodiversity and hasten climate change, the pact would control marine activity on the high seas. It is divided into four sections that discuss the advantages of exchanging marine genetic resources, environmental impact studies, climate change and ocean resilience, and the growth of marine protected areas. 

What were the Challenges?

Two points of contention include the concept that marine genetic resources will yield huge profits in the future. Nations are also pushing back on the possibility of international fisheries oversight. The high seas have never been regulated and always provided unregulated, boundless fishing.

Now we are seeing the ramifications of this “wild west” approach. Russia and Iceland are, calling for fisheries to be excluded from the agreement. Fishing accounts for a significant portion of Iceland’s GDP, making this small country one of the world’s top fishing nations. And China, which harvests a third of the world’s fish, is a strong opponent of fisheries oversight. 

The limitations in these protected zones, which range from mild limits to “no-take” laws and are intended to prevent overfishing, occasionally elicit criticism from fishing interests. Duncan Currie, an environmental attorney, marine biologists and other participants explain that these limits might be advantageous to the fishing sector.

Currie remarked, “It’s not just shutting down the fishing areas; it’s increasing the output of fishing sites.” The negotiating process has gone on for years, but some analysts sense a new urgency among member states. Last month, nearly 50 countries formed a “high-ambition coalition” with the well-publicized mission to streamline the process and to get this treaty signed.  

The United States has largely favored maintaining the status quo, and any agreement would require Senate ratification, which could be a challenge given the polarization in U.S. politics. However, we hoped that under the current administration, the U.S. would take a much more progressive role in negotiating this treaty. 

For the last two weeks, the world convened. After the bombastic speeches we heard at the Lisbon UN Ocean Conference, we believed that the past two weeks were a mere formality. We were sure a treaty would be signed.

We were wrong.