Almost two-thirds of the planet's surface is oceans and the seas make up 95% of the Earth's total habitat by volume.
However, so far only 1% of the high seas have been under any protection protocol and only 39% of the ocean is under the national jurisdiction of the various countries.
After years of negotiations, UN Member States have agreed on the High Seas Treaty, which ensures the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
The ocean. That vast, deep, dazzling mass of azure blue and seemingly endless water that cradles the planet we call home and defines it from space. The iconic blue planet or the pale blue dot suspended in a ray of sunshine immortalized by Carl Sagan. An incredibly rich natural resource whose beauty, abundance and mystery are the stuff of legend. It has inspired poets and seers for millennia, such as Amanda Gorman, who invoked in her Ode to Our Ocean: "May the seas help us see healing and hope; May we sing the survival and rebirth of the ocean."
The ocean provides food, oxygen and regulates the climate
However, when something is beyond most of our usual spheres of movement and our daily lives, it all too easily becomes something "out of sight, out of mind," even though without it, we simply could not exist.
The ocean provides more than half of the planet's oxygen. It provides critical food and nutrition to billions of people and livelihoods to millions more employed in sectors such as fisheries, aquaculture and even tourism, shipping and renewable energy.
A thriving ocean is key to ensuring coastal defenses during increasingly volatile weather events and storms, especially in vulnerable communities, cities and coastal states. The ocean is our most important carbon sink: it absorbs excess global warming and buffers climate change.
The ocean may survive in one form or another, but if it doesn't thrive, one thing is for sure: we won't be able to survive. Whether it's a young tech worker in Bangladesh, a grandmother in Botswana, a journalist in Bulgaria, a fish processor in Brazil or an artist in Belgium, we all need the ocean for our lives, every second of every day.
Almost two-thirds of the planet's surface is oceans, and the seas make up 95% of the Earth's total habitat by volume. But, incredible as it may seem, so far only 1% of the high seas have been under some protection protocol and only 39% of the ocean is under the national jurisdiction of the various countries. And the rest? It has become a salty Old West. The first to arrive is the first to be served, the winner takes everything, today here, not tomorrow. The result has been an agonizing period of overexploitation, with little regard for the health of the natural resources it houses, and with total impunity. Humanity has proverbially shot itself in the foot or failed to take into account future generations, who will need a prosperous ocean to survive.
The historic High Seas Treaty
But at last the blinders have been removed. After more than a decade of talks and negotiations, UN Member States have agreed on a High Seas Treaty that will ensure the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. For the first time in history, rules will be established to effectively manage and govern that vast blue wasteland on which we depend for much of our lives, but whose 99% has so far been ungoverned.
The World Economic Forum's Ocean Action Agenda and Friends of Action for Oceans, a diverse community of global leaders representing a wide range of sectors and geographies committed to accelerating solutions for a healthy ocean, issued a statement in January 2023 calling for action for the oceans through a number of key opportunities this year – including, this Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity from Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (now in its fifth resumed iteration, or "IGC5bis"). The group has warmly welcomed this agreement of a UN pact for the oceans.
Responsible use of marine resources
The High Seas Treaty includes an agreement to impose strict protection of the ocean beyond national borders and rules for the sustainable use of its resources. It is not a question of making nature remain intact, but of applying a precautionary approach to use marine resources responsibly - in contrast to the current 'Old West' of the high seas - to ensure that we do not deplete ocean ecosystems and leave nothing for tomorrow.
By providing the tools to establish and manage marine protected areas (MPAs), the new treaty is a massive contribution to implementing the UN Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in December 2022 in Montreal at the Convention on Biological Diversity. In it, countries committed to protect 30% of oceanic, terrestrial and coastal areas by 2030 (known as "30x30").
The new High Seas Treaty stipulates that environmental impact assessments must be carried out before any new exploitation of marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It also includes provisions that allow for the equitable sharing of knowledge, technologies and benefits of marine genetic resources. These elements can be used in products ranging from food supplements and cosmetics to life-saving medicines, and ongoing research may bring as yet unknown benefits to humanity for years to come.
National governments have yet to formally adopt and ratify this agreement for the treaty to enter into force, but as conference chairwoman Rena Lee said late Saturday night in New York: "the ship has reached shore." Undoubtedly, better protecting the high seas and enforcing careful management of marine resources will in turn mitigate the cumulative impact of potentially costly activities, such as shipping and industrial fishing, in the virtuous circle of a sustainable blue economy that benefits people and nature alike.
All human beings on the planet descend from ocean life. We need the ocean more than we think. The performance of UN member states these days in New York is worthy of praise and applause. All members of the world community, in all sectors, must act together - both for our own sake and for the sake of ocean life - to celebrate, implement and monitor the effectiveness of the new High Seas Treaty. It is time for the ocean to receive the protection it deserves.
Gemma Parkes - Communications Lead, Ocean Action Agenda - World Economic Forum