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High seas

New UN treaty on the protection of the high seas: What does it mean?

The UN has adopted a historic agreement to protect 30% of the high seas. SDU ocean expert Jamileh Javidpour recommends to first protect areas where biodiversity is most threatened; for example seamounts and migration corridors for large predators, which rely on specific routes for their annual migrations.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 3/7/2023

Half of our planet is covered by high seas over which no country has or has ever had jurisdiction.

The high seas, also known as international waters, lie beyond individual country's exclusive economic zones, which extend up to 200 nautical miles from the coast.

The absence of jurisdiction means that all nations are allowed to fish and travel on the high seas, and since only 1% of the high seas is subject to some form of protection, there has been more or less free play out there - until now.

The new treaty on the protection of the high seas is an agreement by the UN member states.

The new UN treaty

  • The full name of the treaty name is Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.  
  • With it, the member states undertake to designate specially protected areas, so-called Marine Protected Areas, in order to counter, among other things, the loss of wildlife.  
  • The agreement also obliges the members to share the genetic resources of the high seas – this is, for example, the use of the sea's plants and animals for research and food.

  • Before it can become law, it must be formally adopted at a later UN meeting and ratified by at least six 60 members.

We have asked biologist and ocean scientist Jamileh Javidpour for an assessment of what the new treaty means.

She has led several ocean expeditions and studies marine animals and their living conditions, and in 2021, she co-authored an international call in the scientific journal Science to protect biodiversity in the high seas.

1: What does the high sea need protection from?

Our planet is an ocean planet! The high seas cover nearly half of Earth’s surface, but only 1% is protected.

The high seas support our planet in countless ways, from regulating the climate to feeding millions of people and contributing billions of dollars to the global economy.

Yet to date, the current patchwork of management and lack of oversight leaves it vulnerable to abuse, especially because high seas are the areas beyond any country's exclusive economic zone and they are not under the control of any individual country.

Overfishing, pollution (oil spills, plastic waste, and chemical runoff from land-based sources), climate change, unsustainable use of resources such as deep-sea minerals, oil, and gas together with the lack of governance make it difficult to protect the high sea effectively. These threats are further magnified by our ignorance about high-seas ecosystems and biodiversity.

The high seas support our planet in countless ways, from regulating the climate, to feeding millions of people and contributing billions of dollars to the global economy. Yet to date it has been let vulnerable to abuse. 

Jamileh Javidpour, ocean scientist

2. Where is the most urgent need for establishing the first Marine Protected Areas?

The most urgent need is in specific ocean regions or ecosystems that are particularly vulnerable or important for biodiversity conservation. 

These may include areas such as seamounts, hydrothermal vents, and migration corridors for species of marine large predators, which rely on specific routes for their annual migrations (like arctic and Antarctic). 

Additionally, areas of high biodiversity, such as coral reefs and mangroves, may also require urgent protection. For example, the Sargasso Sea and the Coral Triangle are two areas that have been identified as priorities for marine conservation due to their high levels of biodiversity and vulnerability to threats such as overfishing and climate change.

3. How should we control that regulations for Marine Protected Areas are not violated?

To ensure compliance with regulations affecting the high seas, we need a unified set of principles. 

It is crucial to establish a robust system of monitoring, enforcement, and collaboration. For example, satellite monitoring can be used to track human activities, while fines, penalties, or the revocation of licenses can serve as enforcement measures.

Sharing information and coordinating efforts among countries and stakeholders such as NGOs can also help protect these critical areas of marine biodiversity.

4. Is there a need for Marine Protected Areas in the high seas close to Denmark?

Definitely! I believe the Bornholm Basin in the Baltic is an example of an area that requires increased protection.

It is important to note that the establishment and management of Marine Protected Areas is a continuous process that can be influenced by changing scientific knowledge, societal values, and policy developments.

As a result, it is possible that new or expanded Marine Protected Areas in the Danish seas may be recommended in the future, depending on factors such as ecological data and public opinion.

Meet the researcher

Jamileh Javidpour is an associate professor at the Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark.


Editing was completed: 07.03.2023