After years of debates and discussions, nations have agreed on a High Seas Treaty to protect marine biodiversity and provide oversight of international waters. It is being lauded by researchers as an important step for conservation that encourages international research collaboration without hindering science.

“We’re ecstatic,” says Kristina Gjerde, who researches marine environmental law at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “This long-awaited treaty contains many of the vital things we need to safeguard our oceans.”

The final wording of the agreement was hashed out by delegates of the United Nations Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) at the end of a two-week meeting in New York City. The final session, which lasted for 38 uninterrupted hours, finished long after expected, on 4 March. “That was excessive, even by UN standards,” says Marcel Jaspars, a chemist and marine bioprospector at the University of Aberdeen, UK, who took part in the proceedings as an adviser to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “It was madness. The delegates were so tired.”

Countries have jurisdiction over the waters that extend 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from their shores. Beyond that are the high seas, which make up about two-thirds of the global ocean, or more than 70% of Earth’s surface. Some activities are regulated in these waters, including whaling, shipping and sea-bed mining, through mechanisms such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But, on the whole, the high seas have long been considered the ‘wild west’ of the ocean, with few rules and regulations, particularly regarding the protection of biodiversity.

It has long been recognized that a treaty was needed to plug these gaps, given the high seas’ vast importance to marine life and to the global climate; the idea was first broached 20 years ago. In 2017, the UN decided to formally convene an intergovernmental conference to formulate a treaty, but delegates met without achieving their goal in the years that followed. Although countries finally succeeded on 4 March, they ran out of time to formally adopt the treaty. That will happen in the near future at a specially convened BBNJ session.

Ships passing in the night

The treaty creates various groups — including a scientific and technical body — to oversee regulations and react to changing conditions. It also emphasizes capacity building for research in lower-income nations, to ensure equitable access to science and to benefits from ocean discoveries.

The issue of benefit sharing from ‘marine genetic resources’ was the biggest sticking point of the negotiations. Marine life is thought to be a goldmine for these resources, which include molecules with pharmaceutical uses. But not all nations have the ability to harvest or study them, and delegates from developing nations want to suppress ‘biopiracy’ — wealthy nations harvesting materials from just outside their territories and reaping the benefits. The treaty states that monetary benefits from genetic resources “shall be shared in a fair and equitable manner” and used “for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity”. A benefit-sharing committee established by the treaty, composed of 15 nominated experts, will decide what is fair.

“As a Caribbean scientist, I am extremely pleased” with this aspect of the treaty, says Judith Gobin, a marine ecologist at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, in Trinidad and Tobago. “For too long we have watched research ships passing in the night, taking our marine organisms away.” Now, she says, “we will be truly involved.”

The agreement calls for scientists to add a “BBNJ standardized batch identifier” to genetic data and biological samples collected from marine life, and to notify a clearing house as to where those data are published, no later than one year after collection. The identifier will be attached to any patents or sales of marketed products that come from the original research. For researchers, “you’ll just have another number to attach to your spreadsheet,” Jaspars says, adding that most of the logistical burden of benefit sharing will instead land on those developing commercial applications.

The treaty also establishes a mechanism to create marine protected areas (MPAs) in the high seas. This keeps alive a pledge made last year at a biodiversity summit in Montreal that nations will protect 30% of the world’s land and seas by 2030. Importantly, the treaty allows for nations to establish MPAs by vote if they can’t reach consensus. This will be crucial to avoid stalemates, says Gjerde, who is a senior high-seas adviser to the IUCN’s ocean team. She points to a situation in the Southern Ocean, for example, where one or two countries have stalled progress on establishing MPAs for more than five years.

For any activities on the high seas that are expected to have a substantial effect, the treaty also calls for environmental-impact assessments. Nations will review these assessments and be in charge of approving the activities. Most scientific projects probably won’t require such evaluations, says Cymie Payne, an environmental-governance specialist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. But the assessments will provide a useful central source of information about ocean activities, she adds.

Some scientists had worried that the treaty might require new permits for research projects exploring the high seas, adding bureaucracy to studies that can already be hard to get off the ground. This did not come to pass. Instead, research cruises will simply have to make a public notification about where they are going and when, says Jaspars. This will give “researchers from low- and middle-income countries an opportunity to join the cruise,” he says.

Agreeing on the treaty text was a crucial step, but not the last step. “While there are still major issues in the text, it is a workable Treaty that is a starting point for protecting 30% of the world’s oceans,” said the environmental-activism organization Greenpeace in a statement. “Now the hard work of ratification and protecting the oceans begins.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on March 7, 2023.