• March 16, 2023
The landmark UN high seas agreement is the UN high seas deal science must fill in the gaps

The landmark UN high seas agreement is the UN high seas deal – science must fill in the gaps

It has taken a long time for the United Nations high seas agreement to be completed. It was finally ratified earlier this month, almost 20 years after being worked on. This treaty is a significant achievement. This will be the first international law that offers some protection to nearly two-thirds of the ocean that is not under national control. These ocean areas have very few meaningful safeguards against pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction, and overfishing.

One of these is the ability to create marine protected zones through the decisions of a conference. It is a win under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It recognizes that all people benefit from the genetic resources found on the high seas. Companies planning commercial activities or organizations contemplating large-scale projects (such as climate intervention involving the ocean) must also conduct environmental impact assessments.

While countries can profit by exploiting marine genetic resources, they must also channel some of their profits to a global fund that protects the high seas. The fund details are still being worked out, but high-income countries involved in marine genetic research will be required to contribute more.

This treaty offers many opportunities to research ocean science. It also provides research capabilities for low- and medium-income countries. The treaty also improves the evidence available for decision-makers. Researchers working with marine genetic resources must register their interest with a central clearinghouse and agree to open data and research outputs to the public.

Scientists will play a crucial role in the success of the treaty. This will include gathering and improving evidence that supports establishing and maintaining strong marine protected zones and informs stringent environmental impact assessments. Researchers must also make every effort for transparency. This includes declaring the source and potential use of genetic material and making digital sequence information accessible through international repositories. This will increase cooperation and capacity-building and assist governments in developing their national regulations and procedures consistent with the treaty.

There is also the possibility of new scientific collaboration, such as using emerging technologies like telepresence to allow scientists to participate in remote research cruises. For example, marine scientists could gather samples in the Pacific Ocean under the supervision of others. These collaborations can lead to new products being commercialized, which could benefit both scientists and economies worldwide.

It is important not to overestimate the treaty’s potential: despite its successes, there are still deficiencies that the international community and the research community must address.

The Arctic’s permanent glacier is melting, and China plans to build a shipping route through the Central Arctic Ocean. Within a decade, this could be a standard route for shipping between Asia-Europe. Pacific mining companies are looking for metals from the deep seabed to power the green-energy transition. These activities will not be scrutinized under the treaty because it doesn’t override existing regulations governing high seas activities. The International Maritime Organization is responsible for shipping, the International Seabed Authority oversees deep-sea mines, and 17 regional fisheries management organizations regulate fisheries in different ocean parts, including Antarctica. The treaty does not apply to military activities, commercial shipping, and fishing operations.

This means that, for example, the treaty can’t create protected areas in areas already covered by fishing arrangements, even if fishing is not sustainable and depleting stock. This is a huge hole. Overexploitation of coastal fisheries has created a frontier for the high seas. Fleets travel further and fish longer to find dwindling resources. One result is that stocks of certain highly migratory species like tuna have fallen precipitously since 1950 (M. J. Juan-Jorda et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. Sci. By 2018, the Pacific bluefin tuna, for example, was at 3.3% of 1952 levels (see go.nature.com/3mpimbh). Oceanic sharks and rays have been down 71% since 1970 (N. Pacoureau et al. Nature 589; 567-571; 2021. After the national parliaments have ratified the treaty in at least 60 countries, it can require that any proposed ocean activities (such as climate intervention experiments) are subject to rigorous environmental impact assessments. It must make a different demand for existing activities.

The treaty will not stop current environmental violations offshore. Excessive nutrients from farming waste end up in rivers and streams. It then reaches the open ocean, forming dead zones, vast areas without life. Between 2008 and 2019, these zones nearly doubled, from 400 to 700 (see go.nature.com/3mpigh1). The oceans now contain 200 million tonnes of plastic. Cruise ships illegally discharge more than a billion tonnes of raw waste annually into international waters.

The high seas agreement is still a victory for diplomacy. It is humanity’s first serious attempt at challenging offshore carnage. The international community has secured this agreement, giving itself a fighting chance to fulfil earlier promises — most recently reaffirmed under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity — that 30% of the ocean would be protected by 2030.

 Only 1% of international waters is currently protected. This proportion is expected to increase, allowing for the preservation of our oceans and preventing biodiversity loss.

Although it is still years from full implementation, scientists have a rare opportunity to apply their knowledge to support offshore conservation. The high seas treaty, which a growing research effort will support, will help us to change our relationship with the oceans.

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