The high seas, or regions of the ocean beyond national borders, make up 50 per cent of earth’s area. They are home to a rich tapestry of ecosystems and an incredible diversity of wildlife, much of which remains undiscovered.
Yet less than one per cent of the high seas are protected, and, as international waters, there was no framework for changing that—until now.
The decision came after 36 sleepless hours. United Nations (UN) member states had hoped to reach an agreement for the protection of high seas biodiversity by Wednesday, March 1. By Saturday, consensus still seemed beyond reach.
With delegates frustrated and sleep-deprived, negotiations came perilously close to breaking down—and some feared that if this session ended without an agreement, the window of opportunity would be lost for good.
In a desperate plea, Rena Lee, the president of the conference, asked for 30 more minutes of negotiation. And miraculously, in the final hour, delegates arrived at an agreement.
Although the final agreement is not perfect, our partners recognise it as a landmark moment, not only for ocean conservation, but for the future of global biodiversity. The protracted negotiations this spring are a fitting ending for what has been an arduous journey, playing out over more than twenty years.
Two decades of advocacy for the high seas
This month’s landmark decision is the product of five years of official negotiation. But that monumental effort is itself the culmination of more than two decades of advocacy and policy work. In 2002, the UN held its first informal consultation on the protection of the marine environment in the high seas. From 2004, a series of working groups= was established and began discussing the biodiversity of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction and determined that the high seas were in urgent need of conservation action.
This initial period of negotiations concluded in 2010, when the Aichi Targets—the first international goals for biodiversity—were established. Delegates recognised the necessity of conserving marine and coastal areas and called to accelerate the process towards a UN agreement. One year later, our partner the High Seas Alliance was founded. The coalition brings together more than 40 NGOs unified in their desire for a robust and actionable high seas treaty.