What You Need to Know and Do to Protect the High Seas

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The Mediterranean would benefit from a high seas protected area, a topic ripe for discussion during IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille this fall

The Mediterranean Sea is a major marine and coastal biodiversity hotspot. With 28% of the world’s endemic species, this semi-closed sea is home to 18% of the planet’s marine flora and 7.5% of its marine fauna. Yet despite being an important area for wintering, reproduction and migration, only 1.27% of the Mediterranean is effectively protected today. According to the UN Environment Programme Mediterranean Action Plan, most of the Mediterranean’s marine protected areas are coastal or located in waters less than 50 metres deep, which means that deeper ecosystems in areas beyond national jurisdiction—known as the high seas—are underrepresented. But at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille in early September, government decision makers, civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organisations from around the world will discuss the fate of these and other areas around the planet that are ripe for protection.

The timing could not be more crucial. The ocean’s health is in decline, with the cumulative effects of habitat destruction; pollution; shipping; noise from oil, gas and mineral exploration; and other human activities now affecting an estimated 66% of the ocean. Marine populations and groups of species—including seabirds, sharks, rays, whales and dolphins—continue to be under threat in Europe. And an estimated 87% or more of the commercially exploited fish and shellfish species in the Mediterranean and Black Seas are overfished.

Horse-eye jacks (Caranx latus) swim by an NOS diver during a safety stop. Credit: NOAA.

To turn the tide on the lack of meaningful ocean protections and restore the health of the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, the world’s governments must take bold and urgent action to ensure that the ocean continues to provide the benefits and resources that so many depend on. 

Here’s a primer on what we should know and do to protect the high seas.

High Seas: U.N. Has One Chance To Get it Right. Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts

What are the high seas? 

The high seas, or ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction, fall outside countries’ exclusive economic zones and cover nearly two-thirds of the world’s ocean. Only around 1% of these waters is protected today. Such a vast area of the planet cannot be left unprotected if we want to conserve its biodiversity and maintain a healthy ocean. The biodiversity that we’re attempting to protect is known as BBNJ, which stands for biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

A Crossota jellyfish floats at about 3,700 meters (12,139 feet) deep in the Mariana Trench. Credit: NOAA.

Why do we need a high seas treaty?

The challenges in managing the high seas are magnified by their vast scale. A fragmented puzzle of intergovernmental organizations manages different aspects of human activities in different areas on the high seas, with varying degrees of effectiveness—and these entities often don’t coordinate well with each other. In this patchwork approach to high seas governance, several critical gaps exist: There is no legal mechanism for establishing comprehensive marine protected areas on the high seas, and there is no global framework for conducting environmental impact assessments for activities taking place in these waters beyond national jurisdiction. The BBNJ treaty can fill key governance gaps and enable high seas marine protected areas to be established. 

Where do the negotiations for a high seas treaty stand?

Right now, we’re waiting for negotiations, which were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to resume at the United Nations in New York. Their resumption will present a crucial opportunity to finalize an ambitious high seas treaty. And 2022 will also likely see the agreement of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 global biodiversity framework, including a target to protect at least 30% of the planet’s land and water ecosystems by 2030. The high seas are critical to achieving the 30% ocean protection target by 2030—not only because of their size but also because of the connectivity between the high seas and coastal waters.

A scuba diver swims amid a school of fish in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: NOAA

What can I do to protect the high seas?

The high seas treaty represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect one of our greatest global commons, and we all have a role to play in ensuring a successful outcome. First, educate yourself about the state of the global ocean and the vital role it plays in preserving life on Earth. Learn more about the high seas, then help spread the word that action is needed to restore the health of the ocean, and also urge political leaders to work swiftly to finalize an ambitious high seas treaty—one that will provide meaningful protections for important high seas areas, which in turn would improve ocean health and benefit the billions of people who rely on a thriving marine environment.

About the author: Julian Jackson leads work in Europe for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ protecting ocean life on the high seas project.