The United Nations (UN) recently reached an agreement on a new treaty that aims to ensure the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. 

The agreement was reached during the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), which was held in New York.

The treaty represents a significant step forward in the global effort to protect the ocean’s biodiversity, particularly in areas that are beyond the jurisdiction of individual nations. 

The treaty will apply to areas of the ocean that are beyond national jurisdiction, such as the high seas and the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

The UN spearheaded the talks, which involved representatives from various nations. However, the treaty has not been officially accepted yet because its members have not yet ratified it.

Once adopted, the treaty will be legally binding, which means that signatories will be required to comply with its provisions.

What is High Seas Treaty?

BCCL/Representational Image

The High Seas Treaty is a legally binding international agreement being developed within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

It aims to provide a comprehensive legal framework to protect oceans and marine life, particularly in the high seas, which were previously not covered by any such framework. 

The UN treaty on marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction is significant in achieving the 30×30 target set at UN CBD COP15. The countries agreed to protect 30% of oceans by 2030. The treaty aims to conserve and sustainably use marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction, which covers about 64% of the ocean’s surface area. 

By establishing regulations for access and benefit-sharing, environmental impact assessments, and indigenous community consent, the treaty aims to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, preserve biodiversity, and promote the sustainable use of marine resources.

Although the process of creating the treaty was initiated in 2015, it was postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. In order to speed up the finalization of the treaty, the European Union established the High Ambition Coalition on BBNJ in 2022, reports The Hindu.

What are the key features of the treaty?

The establishment of an Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS) committee will frame guidelines for the access and sharing of benefits derived from marine genetic resources beyond national jurisdiction. 

Marine genetic resource activities in high seas areas must be peaceful and serve the interests of all states and humanity.

The requirement for signatories to conduct environmental impact assessments before exploiting marine resources beyond national jurisdiction. 

The evaluation procedures involve a series of steps, such as examining, outlining, conducting an impact analysis of the marine environment that might be impacted, and identifying measures to prevent and manage any unfavourable outcomes.

This provision aims to ensure that the exploitation of marine resources is done sustainably and with minimum harm to the marine ecosystem.

The treaty mandates that the marine resources in areas outside national jurisdiction, which belong to indigenous individuals and local communities, can only be accessed with their free, informed consent and or approval and involvement”. 

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This provision aims to ensure that the rights of indigenous people and local communities are protected and that their knowledge and practices are respected and used sustainably. By doing so, the treaty recognizes the important role of indigenous communities in the sustainable management of marine resources.

Additionally, the treaty establishes a Clearing-House Mechanism (CHM) that will facilitate the sharing of information among member states on the access and benefit-sharing of marine genetic resources beyond national jurisdiction. 

Members will have to provide the CHM with details like the objective of the research, geographical area of collection, names of sponsors, etc. This provision aims to enhance transparency and promote the equitable sharing of benefits derived from marine genetic resources.

Finally, a special fund will be established as part of the pact, which will be fixed by the conference of parties (COP). The COP will also oversee the functioning of the treaty. The fund will provide financial support for developing countries to participate in the implementation of the treaty.

What are the high seas?

The high seas are areas of the ocean that are beyond a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and are not under any country’s jurisdiction. According to the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas, the high seas refer to those parts of the ocean that are not considered territorial or internal waters of any country. 

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is within 200 nautical miles of a coastline, and a nation has jurisdiction over living and non-living resources in this area. The high seas cover over 60% of the world’s ocean area and contain about 2.7 lakh known species. 

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They play a crucial role in regulating climate and provide resources such as seafood, raw materials, genetic and medicinal resources, air purification, climate regulation, and aesthetic, scientific, and cultural services.

However, they are under threat from human activities such as overfishing, pollution, climate change, and the exploitation of resources. It is essential to balance the use of the high seas with the need to preserve and protect these vital resources and services for future generations.

What are the threats?

The high seas face many threats, including climate change, overfishing, and pollution. They absorb heat from the atmosphere and are affected by phenomena like El Nino, which can endanger marine flora and fauna. 

The high seas are facing acidification, which could harm marine life, and thousands of species could face extinction by 2100 if current trends continue. 

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Anthropogenic pressures on the high seas include seabed mining, noise pollution, chemical and oil spills and fires, waste disposal, overfishing, the introduction of invasive species, and coastal pollution. 

These threats pose a significant risk to the health and sustainability of the high seas and the resources and services they provide.

Despite the serious threats facing the high seas, only 1% of them are under protection, making them one of the least-protected areas. This lack of protection and management is a significant danger to the health and sustainability of the high seas and the resources and services they offer.

 It is essential to protect and manage the high seas to ensure their continued health and sustainability, as well as the continued provision of resources and services crucial for human well-being.

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Pooja Yadav