Australian marine science and law experts welcome High Seas Treaty

United Nations member countries have agreed to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 in an agreement being referred to as the ‘High Seas Treaty’.

On 5 March delegates of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (known by the acronym BBNJ), agreed to the collective 30% by 2030 goal, along with more money for marine conservation and frameworks to assess the environmental impact of activities like deep sea mining, and for access to marine genetic resources.

The BBNJ’s final negotiations took place in New York in talks that were initially scheduled for 2020 and deferred due to COVID-19. Treaty talks began in 2004 and build on the legacy of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The agreement covers international waters – two-thirds of the ocean – areas beyond the jurisdiction of any country.

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Australian science and law experts welcomed the agreement.

Professor Elaine Baker, an expert on the Law of the Sea and the UNESCO Chair in Marine Sciences at the University of Sydney, says the treaty is an important step for the protection of ocean biodiversity. However, she says, its ratification will take some time.

An important aspect of the agreement is the requirement for assessing the environmental impacts of deep sea mining, Baker says. Currently, data provided by mining companies to the International Seabed Authority on the environmental impact caused by their deep-sea mining is very limited.
“We hope that the treaty will force change to increase transparency and help protect marine biodiversity in the deep ocean,” she says.

Associate Professor Daniel Dunn is from the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland has been involved with the BBNJ negotiations for nearly a decade. 

Dunn says, “the new High Seas Treaty is the work of nearly twenty years of eye-wateringly slow discussion about the blindingly obvious need for better mechanisms to protect, assess, and sustainably use the half of the planet beyond the control of any one country.”

He says an important aspect of the agreement is the framework for marine genetic resources, which have already been used to develop extremely lucrative pharmaceuticals by corporations and countries which can afford to access these deep and distant areas.

Professor Tim Stephens, an expert in international environment law, the Law of the Sea, and climate change policy at Sydney Law School, says, “it is very pleasing to see a treaty finally concluded to protect high seas biodiversity and to provide a framework for sharing access to and the benefits from high seas marine genetic resources.
“With the exception of some fisheries treaties, the high seas have not been adequately protected by international law.”

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