Why the High Seas Treaty is a breakthrough for the ocean and the planet

By Gemma Parkes, Communications Lead, Ocean Action Agenda, World Economic Forum | March 10, 2023
  • Almost two-thirds of the planet’s surface is ocean and the seas make up 95% of the Earth’s total habitat by volume.
  • But, only 1% of the high seas has, up until now, been under any protection protocol and just 39% of the ocean falls under the national jurisdiction of individual countries.
  • After years of negotiations, Member States of the United Nations have agreed the High Seas Treaty, ensuring the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

The ocean. That vast, profound, dazzling azure blue and seemingly endless body of water that cradles the planet we call home and defines it from space. The iconic blue planet or the pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam immortalized by Carl Sagan. An incredibly rich natural resource whose beauty, bounty and mystery are the stuff of legend. It has inspired poets and seers for millennia, including Amanda Gorman who invoked in her Ode to Our Ocean: “May the seas help us see healing and hope; May we sing out the ocean’s survival and revival.”

The ocean provides food, oxygen and climate regulation

Yet, when something is beyond most of our regular spheres of movement and everyday lives, it really does all too easily become ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – even if without it, we quite simply could not exist. The ocean provides more than half the oxygen on the planet. It provides food and critical nutrition for billions of people and millions more livelihoods across a range of ocean sectors from fishing and aquaculture to tourism, maritime transport and renewable energy. A thriving ocean is key in ensuring coastal defences during increasingly volatile weather and storms, especially in vulnerable coastal communities, cities and states. The ocean is our most important carbon sink, absorber of excess global warming and buffer against climate change.

The ocean will make it one way or another, but if it doesn’t thrive, one thing’s for sure: we cannot survive. Whether a young tech worker in Bangladesh, a grandmother in Botswana, a journalist in Bulgaria, a fish processor in Brazil or an artist in Belgium, we all need the ocean for our lives – every second of every day.

Almost two-thirds of the planet’s surface is ocean – and the seas make up 95% of the Earth’s total habitat by volume. But, incredibly, only 1% of the high seas has up until now been under any protection protocol and just 39% of the ocean falls under the national jurisdiction of individual countries. The rest? It has effectively amounted to a briny Wild West. First come first served, winner takes all, here today, gone tomorrow. The result has been an agonising period of overexploitation, with too little regard for the health of the natural resources it harbours – and with complete impunity. It has been a case of humanity proverbially shooting itself in the foot or seemingly having no regard for the generations of tomorrow and beyond who will need a thriving ocean for their survival.

The historic High Seas Treaty

But finally, the blinkers have been removed. After more than a decade of talks and negotiations, Member States of the United Nations have agreed a High Seas Treaty that will ensure the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. For the first time in history, rules will be in place to effectively manage and govern that vast blue wilderness we depend on for so much of our lives – 99% of which has been until now ungoverned.

The World Economic Forum’s Ocean Action Agenda and Friends of Ocean Action, a diverse community of global leaders representing a wide range of sectors and geographies committed to fast-tracking solutions for a healthy ocean, issued a statement in January 2023 calling for ocean action through a range of key opportunities this year – not least of which, this Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (now into its resumed fifth iteration, or ‘IGC5bis’) – and strongly welcomes this agreement of a UN deal for the ocean.

Using marine resources responsibly

The High Seas Treaty includes an agreement to impose strict protection of the ocean outside national borders and rules for the sustainable use of its resources. It’s not about putting nature in a bell jar to remain untouched – but rather, applying a precautionary approach to using marine resources responsibly in this ‘Wild West’ of the high seas, to ensure that we are not depleting ocean ecosystems and leaving nothing for tomorrow. By providing the tools to establish and manage marine protected areas, the new treaty is a massive contribution to putting into practice the UN’s Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in December 2022 in Montreal at the Convention on Biological Diversity. Here, countries pledged to protect 30% of ocean, land and coastal areas by 2030 (known as ‘30×30’).

The new High Seas Treaty stipulates that environmental impact assessments must be completed before any new exploitation of marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdictions. It also features provisions to allow for the equitable sharing of knowledge, technologies and benefits from marine genetic resources. These elements may be used in products ranging from food supplements and cosmetics to life-saving medicines – with ongoing research potentially leading to as yet unknown benefits to humanity in the years to come.

The ship docks

National governments still need to formally adopt and ratify this agreement to enable the treaty to enter into force, but as conference President Rena Lee said as she brought down the gavel late into Saturday night in New York: “the ship has reached the shore.” Without a doubt, better protecting the high seas and imposing careful management of marine resources will in turn mitigate the cumulative impact of activities bearing a potentially heavy toll, such as shipping and industrial fishing, in the virtuous circle of a sustainable blue economy that benefits people and nature alike.

Every human on the planet is descended from ocean life. We need the ocean more than we ever realise. The action of UN Member States these days in New York is to be welcomed and applauded. Everyone in the global community across all sectors must act together – for our own sake, as much as for that of ocean life – to celebrate, implement and monitor the effectiveness of the new High Seas Treaty. It is high time the ocean gets the protection it is due.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.



A community’s fight for resilience: Saving Sri Lanka’s vulnerable marine ecosystems

As part of a new series to support the Ocean Breakthroughs, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions and the Edges of Earth expedition explore how a community is adapting to and combating the impacts of climate change in the capital of Sri Lanka. The Edges of Earth team had the opportunity to spend two weeks living alongside Hafsa Jamel (pictured), learning about their work supporting local nature-based solutions that aim to mitigate climate challenges in their home country.


A global coalition forging coral reef resilience

In April 2024, NOAA and ICRI scientists confirmed the fourth global coral bleaching event, highlighting the escalating impacts of climate change on coral reefs. This has spurred initiatives like the Coral Reef Breakthrough and the Global Fund for Coral Reefs to enhance protection, double effective conservation areas, and mobilize significant funding for restoration efforts.