Earlier this month the signing of the ‘high seas treaty’ was heralded as a historic day for conservation and a sign that despite the current geopolitics at play, protecting nature and people can triumph. It was the culmination of a series of talks that began in 2004 and was a huge win for the Oceans. But what is the ‘high seas treaty’ and how can we connect with vast stretches of ocean so far from land? Before we get to those questions, we need to start by looking at 30 by 30.

30 by 30, a trouser size or a worldwide environmental pledge? 

A United Nations Conference of Parties (COP15) in December 2022 set the goal to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. This epic ambition was made by a 73-country strong alliance which was led by the UK. The aim was to drive international action to halt and reverse global biodiversity loss. COP15 outlined a plan to achieve this through a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and other effective area-based conservation measures.

Why set aside all this space when the world is so densely populated and in such need of resources you ask?

The ocean encompasses over 90% of all the habitable space on the planet and is essential for all life on Earth. Global marine ecosystem services’ gross value is estimated at $49.7 trillion. Though only an approximate figure, it is clear the economic benefits of establishing a 30% global MPA network would far outweigh the costs of establishing it. Continued exploitation at the current scale is not even remotely sustainable. Drastic action is needed to get society back on course. 

How does this link to the recently signed ‘high seas treaty’?

The historic treaty created this month is crucial for enforcing the 30 by 30 pledge. The last international agreement on ocean protection was signed 40 years ago in 1982 – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That agreement established an area called the high seas – international waters (beyond countries national jurisdictions) where all countries have a right to fish, ship and do research (these can be visualised as the white areas in the below map). However, less than 2% of these waters are protected. Marine life living outside protected areas has been at risk from climate change, overfishing and shipping traffic. The new treaty provides a legal framework for the high seas which will for the first time enable limits and regulations to be placed on some of the most potentially damaging maritime activities.

Who really benefits from the treaty?

A fundamental requirement for the treaty was that the Monetary and non-monetary benefits would be shared. It was recognised that richer nations currently have the resources and funding to explore the deep ocean, but poorer nations rightly want to ensure any benefits found are shared equally. Therefore the “common heritage of humankind” was used as a key principle for the “high seas treaty”. This will drive increased collaboration in developing the blue economy, hopefully to the benefit of all. 

What are the aims of the high seas treaty and why is it necessary?

The treaty aims to facilitate the regulation of fisheries, shipping routes, deep sea mining and other forms of exploitation on the high seas. There is significant legitimate concern over the potential effects of deep-sea mining. The mining process could be toxic for marine life, cause sedimentation over vulnerable marine areas, cause noise pollution and disturb animal breeding ground. 

The treaty is a tool which will enable MPAs to be developed and implemented on the high seas. This will potentially stop damaging activities such as mining. The development of the treaty involved 193 countries and the UN has heralded it as a victory for multilateralism. It is indeed an incredible example of the potential of international human collaboration. However, lots of questions remain as to the specifics of how the protection of 30% of oceans will be achieved. An increasing number of large scale marine protected areas are already in place. The below table shows the worlds top 10 MPAs. But these vast ocean expanses are far too large to be protected solely by patrol vessels. This is where remote sensing satellite surveillance comes in. 

Large scale marine protected areas, what are they, how do we protect them?

Surprising though it may seem, using satellites to monitor large MPAs can be more cost effective than sea-based monitoring methods. Picture a satellite image covering hundreds of square kilometres of ocean. Even using multiple patrol vessels, it would take days to cover the same area. Reassuringly however, in recent years the designation of MPAs has gone hand in hand with the development of monitoring. For instance, the Pitcairn Islands MPA, covering the entire Exclusive Economic Zone, was designated in September 2016. It has since been monitored by the UK Blue Belt Programme using satellites to monitor and identify potential illegal fishing risks. But, it isn’t just nations’ governments who have the means or desire to monitor the world’s oceans using this technology. 

The tech race is on and surprisingly there are a series of NGOs leading the charge. Using artificial intelligence, huge satellite datasets and some very bright minds it is possible to join the dots and expose patterns of illicit activities at sea. This is exactly what NGOs such as OceanMind, Global Fishing Watch and Skylight are doing. 

As large as the vision is to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030, the task is equally large. The monitoring and protection of the global network of MPAs and reserves has to be conducted through collaboration of many stakeholders, just as the high sea’s treaty was forged through the collective efforts of 173 nations over 20 years. The challenge is ours to take on.

Be Curious

Read more about the 30 by 30 pledge: Global Ocean Alliance 30 by 30 initiative.

See the latest from the virtual horses mouth: UN delegates reach historic agreement on protecting marine biodiversity in international waters | UN News

Check out the Marine Protection Atlas and explore some of the world’s top MPAs: Largest Marine Protected Areas | Marine Protection Atlas (mpatlas.org)

Delve into the Global Fishing Watch free satellite monitoring tool and pick out your own trends and patterns: GFW Map

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