THE HIGH SEAS: Ambition, Power and Greed on the Unclaimed Ocean

Date: 14th May 2024

Guest blog by Olive Heffernan.

June 2023 was an historic moment for the high seas, the half of our planet that is ocean beyond national borders. Following twenty years of campaigning by conservationists and scientists, UN member states finally adopted the High Seas Treaty, the first piece of global legislation to protect life in this vast, unclaimed, space.

For me, a science journalist and ocean obsessive, it was an exciting, and emotional, occasion. I understood how big a win it was for those involved, and what it means, potentially, for the future of our planet. But I also had a more personal, vested interest in this outcome: for several years, I had been following the progress toward a High Seas Treaty, mostly from my office desk in a small village in Ireland, and sometimes in person at the United Nations Headquarters in New York – at what, if I’m being honest, felt like arcane meetings on an obscure topic.

You see, in 2018, I had set out on a journey of my own, to write a book about the high seas. Why the high seas, you might ask? Good question. The simple answer is that I’ve had a lifelong interest in the ocean, and despite having worked as a postdoc marine biologist and having also spent twenty years writing about the ocean and climate change, this story – of the high seas, and what was happening in this vast unclaimed territory – was new to me.

I understood that just 1% of the high seas is protected, in a meaningful sense, from extractive industry. I also knew that scientists were warning that we need to go much further, safeguarding at least 30% of the global ocean if we are to stem the loss of marine life and avoid a collapse of global fisheries. The High Seas Treaty, I understood, offered a way of doing that – it would allow nations to create large marine protected areas beyond their own borders, and to manage the rest of the high seas sustainably and equitably.

Still, I had so many questions: what was happening out there that was so egregious? Who were the preparators? Was it always this way? Who got to decide that half the planet belongs to no-one? Was that a good decision? And what of the seafloor with all its precious minerals; who owns that? Are the high seas still the ‘wild west’ of our planet, a frontier beset by opportunists? What else might we do with this space that benefits humanity? And what do we know of the mysterious and wondrous creatures that inhabit the open ocean, a place that is out of sight and so often out of mind?

These questions were boring a hole in my brain, and I could see only one way out: write a book, answer these questions for myself and, better still, do it in a way that might make others curious and concerned.  Like many popular science books, THE HIGH SEAS was born out of genuine curiosity.

It took me to the far corners of the Earth, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and to places from London to Panama City to Copenhagen. During the course of this journey, I came into contact with conservationists fighting to protect these waters as well as with those looking to exploit the ocean’s untapped resources. Above all, I came closer to the huge scientific effort underway to better understand our open ocean, and how we could use this unclaimed space. We might not all agree on the answers, but I do believe that we should all take part in the conversation. The result is my first book, THE HIGH SEAS: Ambition, Power and Greed on the Unclaimed Ocean, due out May 21 in North America and May 23 in the UK/Commonwealth.

I hope that it strikes a chord with readers, that they come away with a fresh appreciation of the ocean, and of the importance of countries ratifying the High Seas Treaty, so that the promise made by nations in June 2023 now becomes a reality.

Posted on Categories Featured News