Protecting the Ocean We Need - Securing the Future We Want

The UN Starts a Conservation Treaty for the High Seas

Source: National Geographic, Stephen Leahy

A new international effort hopes to stem the tide of illegal and under-regulated fishing and otherwise protect the ocean from a range of threats, to benefit everyone. <--break->The nations of the world have launched a historic two-year process to create the first-ever international treaty to protect life in the high seas.

Covering nearly half of the planet, the high seas are international waters where no country has jurisdiction. These waters, which reach depths of nearly seven miles, are filled with life, from valuable fish to plankton. They help generate the oxygen we breathe and regulate the global climate.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get ocean governance that puts conservation and sustainable use first,” says Liz Karan, senior manager for the high seas program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s said we should thank the ocean for every second breath of oxygen we take.”

The governments of Mexico and New Zealand, with over 140 government co-sponsors, coordinated the resolution. The treaty sends a "strong message of support for the high seas," according to statement by the High Seas Alliance.

After more than ten years of debate and discussion, countries voted at the United Nations on Sunday, December 24 to convene an intergovernmental conference for full treaty negotiations. Over the next two years the details of a legally binding treaty will be negotiated under the Law of the Sea Convention. This "Paris Agreement for the Ocean" would have the authority to create large marine protected areas in the high seas as ocean scientists have long called for. Among the challenges is how to protect the high seas without undermining existing organizations such as the International Whaling Commission or International Seabed Authority.

The hope is to have a treaty ready for signing by the world’s nations mid-2020. Countries are very focused on making this happen, says Karan.


The high seas are parts of the ocean outside of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of countries with coastlines. That also means the high seas are usually only fished by large vessels, often huge bottom trawlers that can damage the sea floor.

Vessels from ten rich nations, like Japan, Korea, and Spain, take 71 percent of catch from the high seas. And they’re only there because of an estimated $150 million in public subsidies that offset the costs of travelling so far from their home ports, says Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia.