- Recently, the UN member states agreed on a historic treaty for protecting marine life in international waters that lie outside the jurisdiction of any country, marking the culmination of over a decade of negotiations to protect the high seas that cover nearly two-thirds of the global ocean.
- The ‘breakthrough’ followed protracted talks led by the UN during the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) in New York where negotiations on the draft treaty were underway for the past two weeks.
- The treaty is yet to be formally adopted as members are yet to ratify it.
What are the high seas?
- Parts of the sea that are not included in the territorial waters or the internal waters of a country are known as the high seas, according to the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas.
- Simply put, it is the area beyond a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone which extends up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coastline and till where a nation has jurisdiction over living and non-living resources.
- No country is responsible for the management and protection of resources on the high seas.
How important are the high seas?
- The high seas account for more than 60% of the world’s ocean area and cover about half of the Earth’s surface, which makes them a hub of marine life. They are home to around 2.7 lakh known species, many of which are yet to be discovered. The high seas are fundamental to human survival and well-being.
- The high seas regulate the climate by playing a fundamental role in planetary stability by mitigating the effects of climate change through its absorption of carbon and by storing solar radiation and distributing heat around the globe.
- In addition, the ocean provides a wealth of resources and services, including seafood and raw materials, genetic and medicinal resources, air purification, climate regulation, and aesthetic, scientific and cultural services.
- However, these oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere, are affected by phenomena like the El Nino, and are also undergoing acidification — all of which endanger marine flora and fauna. Several thousand marine species are at a risk of extinction by 2100 if current warming and acidification trends continue.
- Anthropogenic pressures on the high seas include seabed mining, noise pollution, chemical spills and fires, disposal of untreated waste (including antibiotics), overfishing, introduction of invasive species, and coastal pollution. Despite the alarming situation, the high seas remain as one of the least-protected areas, with only about 1% of it under protection.
What is the treaty?
- The draft agreement of the ‘High Seas Treaty’ recognises the need to address biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems of the ocean and proposes rules to protect oceans outside national borders and regarding the sustainable use of its resources.
- It places 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas, puts more money into marine conservation and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources.
- A marine protected area (MPA) is defined as a “geographically defined marine area that is designated and managed to achieve specific long-term biodiversity conservation objectives and may allow, where appropriate, sustainable use provided it is consistent with the conservation objectives.”
Key features include:
- The treaty has agreed to setup an access- and benefit-sharing committee to frame guidelines. It was also underlined that activities concerning marine genetic resources of areas on high seas should be in the interests of all States and for the benefit of humanity. They have to be carried out exclusively for peaceful purposes.
- Activities concerning marine genetic resources of areas on high seas should be in the interests of all States and for the benefit of humanity. They have to be carried out exclusively for peaceful purposes.
- Signatories will have to conduct environmental impact assessments before the exploitation of marine resources. Before carrying out a planned activity, the member will have to undertake processes of screening, scoping, carrying out an impact assessment of the marine environment likely to be affected, identifying prevention, and management of potential adverse effects, and information on the public consultation process, a description of follow-up actions, including an environmental management plan.
- It stipulates that marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction that are held by indigenous people and local communities can only be accessed with their “free, prior and informed consent or approval and involvement”. No State can claim its right over marine genetic resources of areas beyond national jurisdiction, the draft adds.
- Members will have to provide the clearing-house mechanism (CHM), established as part of the treaty, with details like the objective of the research, geographical area of collection, names of sponsors, etc.
- Provision of funding to help developing countries implement the treaty. A special fund will be established which will be fixed by the conference of parties, which will be formed as part of the pact. The conference of parties will also oversee the functioning of the treaty.