Can a UN Treaty Curtail Industrial Revolution on the High Seas?

Environmental Policy Brief #154 | By: Todd J. Broadman | May 4, 2023
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Oceans make up over 70% of the Earth’s surface and contain 95% of total habitat – only 9% of which has been classified. Most of that watery habitat lies unprotected from human exploitation. That is beginning to change. In early March of this year, a UN treaty was signed that aims to protect the high seas: the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty (BBNJ). The agreement creates marine protected zones, preserving ocean ecosystems throughout the earth’s deep oceans, areas beyond national boundaries. A country’s marine boundary extends 200 nautical miles off-coast.

While the UN’s “30×30” agreement intends to protect 30% of all land and 30% of all water, just 3% of the ocean is “fully protected.” Previous to this agreement, in 1982, there was an agreed upon framework about how to use the extensive resources of the seas: the Convention on the Law of the Sea. This Convention attempted to frame and limit deep seabed mining, commercial fishing, and research, yet only 1.2% of the high seas came under its protection.

BBNJ claims to be legally binding and the agreement was only arrived at after five long, previous rounds of negotiations. The scientific community have been relied upon to prioritize regions of the ocean for protection. For example, Douglas McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, presented his findings on “biodiversity hotspots,” areas of importance due to species richness, extinction risk and habitat diversity.


In spite of the media excitement surrounding this new agreement, the BBNJ agreement has not been formally adopted; there is an upcoming meeting to do just that. Existing global marine organizations, though not bound by its content, are expected to “promote the Treaty’s objectives.” To add a further dose of realism, the Treaty defines a protected area as one that is “managed” and “may allow, where appropriate, sustainable use provided it is consistent with the conservation objectives.”

It is not an overstatement to say that scientists are more familiar with the moon and outer space than with our deep oceans. There are an estimated 240,000 marine species and to date only 17,903 have been evaluated for possible extinction. If nothing is done, the rate of species extinction will accelerate, well before given a chance to understand what species have been lost. What we do know is that half of our atmosphere’s oxygen has its origin in the ocean’s phytoplankton.

According to Dr. McCauley, “We’re effectively seeing an industrial revolution in the ocean.” As on land, commercial investments are driving ocean resource development – the so-called “blue economy” which extends to marine genetic resources. The BBNJ does attempt to address these resources as well, outlining how the “benefits” of such genetics can be shared – in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals for example. Also troubling is what may be exclusive reliance upon this and similar agreements. Liz Karan, Director of Ocean Governance project at Pew, said the BBNJ is “the only pathway to safeguard high seas biodiversity for generations to come.” Sixty nations need to ratify the Treaty before it can be implemented.

This latest Treaty, though ambitious, is a success only to the extent that participating countries adhere to its environmental protections. Recent rulings are not encouraging in this regard. China was recently taken to the Permanent Court of Arbitration for commercial fishing that encroached upon Philippine national waters in the South China Sea and the court ruled against China. China’s reaction: “It is only a scrap of paper.”

Each member state will have to go through an internal national ratification process for the BBNJ, a path fraught with difficulty as we experienced with the Paris Climate Accords.  Beyond this, the legal framework for high seas enforcement and dispute resolution have not been worked out. And then there is the question of who pays for it.

At least we have recognition and a decided leaning towards protection of what makes up 70% of our planet. While government representatives are diligently working to seal these protections, the International Forum for Deep Sea Mining Professionals will be holding their 11th Annual Deep Sea Mining Summit 2023 in London on May 3rd and 4th. Immediate economic interests like these will likely not be constrained by well-meaning language in a UN Treaty.


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