After 20 years of negotiations, the world has a treaty to protect the high seas for the first time. Early Sunday morning German time, the negotiators in New York agreed on a treaty that, for the first time, also sets rules for the seas beyond national sovereignty – after all, two-thirds of the world’s oceans. It was precisely this circumstance that made the negotiations so tough, it is about an area that does not belong to anyone and to which everyone is laying claim for that very reason. Under the current law of the sea, they are free to fish, navigate and conduct scientific research on the high seas, which includes all sea areas more than 200 nautical miles from the coast.
With the new agreement, binding rules for the high seas are now possible for the first time: marine protection areas, environmental impact assessments and other measures are intended to better protect endangered species and habitats in the future. The agreement is a kind of bracket between the nature conservation agreement that was passed in Montreal at the end of last year and the Convention on the Law of the Sea, says Alexander Proelß, professor of international maritime and environmental law at the University of Hamburg. In Montreal last December, the states agreed to place at least 30 percent of land and sea under protection. With the agreement, this will also be possible for areas on the high seas for the first time – and this protection can then also be controlled.
“This is a historic and overwhelming success for international marine protection,” says Environment Minister Steffi Lemke. She herself was “deeply moved”. Environmental organizations express similar enthusiasm. “The High Seas Agreement is a huge success. It closes dangerous legal loopholes and shows us that a change of direction in international nature conservation can succeed, as a result of which the global loss of species slows down,” says Karoline Schacht from the environmental protection organization WWF. “The Paris moment for the climate is joined today by the New York moment for the oceans.” Till Seidensticker, marine protection expert at Greenpeace, is similarly enthusiastic: “Today is a historic day for our seas and the protection they need in times of climate crisis and species extinction need it so badly,” he says.
Negotiations on the agreement began in 2004 – under the umbrella of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was concluded in 1982. They were originally supposed to be completed in August of last year. But the states adjourned – to finally come to an agreement in March 2023. In addition to implementing the 30 percent target for protected areas, the states now also want to invest more money and attention for marine life. There have been long discussions in New York about how strict protection should be in the new areas. There is still no agreement on this. But the goal was clear: the protected areas should relieve the pressure on sea creatures, who are under great pressure for various reasons, and help to stop the extinction of species.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), almost ten percent of the creatures in the world’s oceans are threatened with extinction. The situation of sharks and rays is particularly dramatic: more than three quarters of all species are threatened with extinction. Many of the 91 whale species are also under severe pressure.
One of the main reasons for the loss of species in the world’s oceans is overfishing: more than 34 percent of the world’s fish stocks are already considered overfished. The pollution of the oceans is also a problem for sea creatures: fertilizers lead to massive algal blooms in the sea and ultimately to so-called dead zones on the sea floor where there is no oxygen. And every second, as much plastic ends up in the sea as a garbage truck can transport. A deadly trap for animals who become entangled in it or mistake it for food and then starve to death with their stomachs full of plastic.
The New York Agreement is also intended to protect the inhabitants of the seas against the negative effects of deep-sea mining. So-called manganese nodules are found in various places on the seabed of the deep sea. Since manganese is an important raw material for the production of batteries, for example, many countries have already staked out “claims” on the seabed in order to be able to start mining as soon as it is permitted. The environmental impact assessments, for which the agreement also sets rules, could become all the more important. This means that new economic uses of the world’s oceans would first have to be proven to cause no further damage.
Discussions on financing issues and the use of genetic resources in the seas dragged on until the last few hours. A real “thriller” has unfolded, report negotiators. In the last hours of the conference, which took place at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the representative of the Palau Islands once again addressed his “tired but committed” fellow negotiators: “Let’s put the ship in port.” It has now arrived, after critical hours.
So the relief is great. The treaty finally brings the rules of marine protection into the 21st century, said the Hochsee-Allianz, an alliance of nature conservation associations. “It was a very long journey to this contract,” says Allianz boss Rebecca Hubbard. But now it’s time for ratification. One looks above all at the 52 pioneering states of the so-called High Ambition Coalition, to which Germany also belongs.
But that alone will not be enough. At least 60 countries must ratify the agreement for it to come into force. The agreement must now be implemented quickly, says the Federal Government Commissioner for the Sea, Sebastian Unger. He had headed the German delegation in New York. “We need the oceans as allies to combat the climate and biodiversity crises,” said Unger.