At UN headquarters in New York City on March 4, 193 countries agreed to a landmark treaty to protect one-third of the world’s high seas (i.e. seas outside of national jurisdictions) by 2030. The text of the High Seas Treaty, legally binding under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was finalized over a year following two earlier attempts. Singapore has chaired the treaty negotiations since 2018 and also presided over the passing of the UNCLOS in the 1980s.
Beyond national jurisdictions – so why does it matter?
Nearly two decades in the making, the treaty also outlines mechanisms for parties to conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity in two-thirds of the world’s oceans. It will establish marine protected areas, catalyze financial and technical co-operation between countries, and reduce the impact of high-seas industries and other forms of resource exploitation. The treaty will also facilitate research and access to marine genetic resources.
Ultimately, the treaty will impact shipping lanes and commercial fisheries, especially in Asia, where more than half of the world’s commercial fishing occurs. Asia is also home to nine of the 10 busiest ports in the world, and nearly half of all containerized shipping takes place on east-west routes that cut across Asia.
Currently, just one per cent of international waters are protected, so it remains to be seen if the treaty’s ambitious target is merely aspirational or can be achieved in seven years. Most of the treaty’s details have yet to be finalized, including the potential for deep-sea mining to be regulated, which will be of particular interest to countries like Singapore, which has supported the extraction of minerals to facilitate its clean energy transition.
While there are concerns about how marine protected areas will be designated, the treaty comes just three months after 196 countries signed on to the Global Biodiversity Framework in Montreal, another milestone for conservation as the biodiversity crisis scales the global agenda.