High-Fives for High Seas Treaty

March 2023 is a historic moment for ocean conservation – the agreement of UN high seas treaty from member states represents a leap forward in preserving marine biodiversity and sustainable development.

The Situation

A lot of pelagic species, including one of Aquameridian protected species green sea turtles, pass Hong Kong waters through Pearl River Estuary every year. To protect this endangered species from extinction, Hong Kong South Hope Spot is unarguably essential as this is a designated marine protected area where certain human activities such as over-fishing, exploitation, habitat destruction and recreational sports are restricted by the government. However, once green sea turtles swim across Hong Kong South Hope Spot to the open waters beyond the limit of national jurisdiction boundaries, threats to their survival resurge because these unregulated marine areas, or areas legally defined as “high seas” are not subject to national sovereignty, meaning that all countries have the right to fish, cruise and carry out scientific research yet shoulder no responsibility for management and biodiversity loss. The situation is like your personal safety is protected within certain miles from home but once you step into public places or premises, you’re exposed to the risks of being harassed, attacked or killed. Hence, high seas treaty is a game plan for protection of marine ecosystem and vulnerable wildlife, and a comprehensive understanding of high seas treaty is deemed necessary in the fight for marine protection.


Definition of The High seas

As geographical boundaries to sovereign states, there are legal boundaries of ocean and air space among countries to govern the use of marine resources and economic practices. Coastal countries generally assert a sovereign right over 200 nautical miles of ocean for the use and exploration of marine resources, including water columns and seabeds extending out from their coasts, which are known as “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ). But international waters and deep seafloors that lie beyond the EEZ of any country, are commonly referred to the high seas.


Significance of the High Seas

The high seas are marine areas beyond national jurisdiction that are currently unprotected but teeming with life and natural resources. They covers nearly 64% of the global ocean’s surface and are home to around 270,000 marine species. The high seas is the blue carbon that helps distribute heat around the globe and mitigate the effects of climate change as well as providing a wealth of fish stocks and services for humankind, such as seafood, genetic and medicinal resources, scientific and cultural activities with an estimated contribution of 3-6 trillion US dollars to the global economy. They are also the breeding and feeding ground of many migratory species, including our favorite green turtles

The Challenge

Despite the crucial role of the high seas, only 1.44% of these areas are under protection. In other words, a large part of the international waters are “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”, which has spawned a great deal of destructive fishing practices, unrestricted shipping and abhorrent human activities like deep sea mining and dredging. Given a weak legal framework and loopholes related to governance and conservation for marine biodiversity in the high seas, this essentially means that these areas and the associated resources are not directly owned or regulated by any country. If this is the case, it possibly causes international disputes over resources ownership and management issues in the high seas.

The Solution

The tie-up of the high seas treaty in the UN’s headquarters in New York is both a long-term solution and a long-awaited milestone that helps attain the global goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, which was pledged by member states at the 2022 UN biodiversity conference. The treaty mainly addresses problems in four key areas:

  1. Sharing marine genetic resource and eventual profits among nations
  2. Establishing marine protected areas
  3. Conducting environmental impact assessments
  4. Building capacity and transferring marine technology

In a nutshell, the high seas treaty provides a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas (MPAs) to protect against exploitation and the loss of wildlife, such as limiting fisheries, regulating shipping routes and exploration activities and to share the genetic resources of the high seas among coastal states based on “”fair and equitable” principles, consisting of deep sea sponges, krill, corals, seaweeds and bacteria, which have exponential scientific and commercial value in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food.[1]

The European Union has pledged US$42m to facilitate the ratification and early implementation of the treaty. A conference of the parties (Cop) is to be established, where member states will meet periodically and hold accountable for issues such as governance and biodiversity conservation, inclusive of the model of environmental impact assessments and the procedures of setting up marine protected areas.[2]

The high seas treaty signifies a strengthened multilateral cooperation between nations and has been the staple of success in marine protection. All of the ocean warriors at Aquameridian are so excited about this monumental achievement!

[1] High seas treaty: historic deal to protect international waters finally reached at UN. 

(2023, March 5).  The Guardian: UK.


[2] What is the UN High Seas Treaty and why is it needed?  (2023, March 8).  BBC News: UK.