Opening image: A humpback calf off the coast of Tahiti. The humpbacks migrate to Tahiti to give birth in the southern winter, before heading south in summer to feed in Antarctica. Photo Hayden O’Neill

THE HIGH SEAS TREATY: TWO-THIRDS OF THE WORLD’S OCEANS NOW HAVE A PROTECTIVE LEGAL FRAMEWORK… BUT HOW PROTECTED IS IT?

Twenty years in the making, last week United Nations member states finally agreed on a treaty to protect the high seas – those global waters beyond national maritime boundaries, effectively two-thirds of the world’s oceans. It’s a landmark agreement that provides a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas right around the world. But obviously, with so many stakeholders, so many threats and so much ocean, it’s complicated. Rebecca Hubbard, Director of the High Seas Alliance, talks to Ula Majewski about what this huge new global ocean treaty actually means.

 

We all love the ocean but why is it so important?

The ocean is critical to every single person on the planet, even if you've never seen it. The ocean absorbs around one-third of the carbon emissions that we emit and produces about half of the oxygen that we breathe. It regulates the climate and it provides food and livelihoods. People get spiritual and personal health benefits from it, but essentially without it, we wouldn't be able to survive on the planet.

 

How do we define the ‘high seas'?

The high seas are all of the ocean beyond national waters. So countries manage the sea out to 200 nautical miles and then beyond that, it’s all open. So that area is two-thirds of the global ocean or more simply, half of the whole planet.

 

What’s happening out there on the high seas right now? What are the most critical threats?

The high seas are really owned by nobody but claimed by all. So there’s fishing, there is minerals exploration and a whole lot of shipping. So there's a lot going on in the high seas, even though it's a long way from anybody. Climate change is also having a big impact on the ocean and the high seas, but the biggest impact, as with all of the ocean at this point, is destructive fishing and overfishing.

 

What kind of impact is destructive fishing having on our marine ecosystems?

Essentially, we only know about a few thousand species that exist in the ocean, but we believe that there are potentially millions of species. So the focus of fishing has really been to extract the species that we know about. Around 90 per cent of the big fish like tuna and sharks have already been taken — which means that what is left is only 10 per cent of their populations. Overfishing and destructive fishing is when we take too many of the fish out and their populations can't sustain themselves — the populations crash. It also impacts on the whole food web and can cause tropic cascades — when you take too many of certain fish out, it upsets the balance and the whole food web can crash.

 

We’ve got fishing happening at a variety of levels. You've got really big fishing activities like pelagic fishing. Super trawlers are also operating on the high seas, taking baitfish to feed farmed fish, and you’ve got other kinds of trawlers and longliners which are indiscriminate and kill other marine life as “bycatch”. Most of the fishing happening is currently managed by regional fishery organisations but they have typically done a very poor job. We have a real crisis on our hands. Around a third of all fish species that we know and that we’ve studied have been overfished. There’s also a big push for deep sea mining.

 

So there’s all this stuff happening, but there’s no comprehensive impact assessment process on the high seas and only 1 per cent of the high seas are protected. The management system that we've had has really led to the decline of ocean health.

Rebecca Hubbard on the significance of the Treaty: “It's good for the ocean and it's good for humanity because it demonstrates that we can still successfully deliver multilateral agreements, even considering the complicated geopolitical space that we're in.” Humpback mother and calf, Tahiti. Photo Hayden O’Neill

What just happened at the United Nations?
It’s massive! It's the culmination of around two decades of work for many experts and conservationists and some governments. The United Nations just agreed the text of a new high seas treaty. It's pretty much the biggest thing for the global ocean for decades. It's going to bring ocean governance into the 21st century. The treaty will provide a legal framework to be able to protect the high seas, to better assess the impact of our activities out there and manage them. Also to be able to share the benefits from marine genetic resources equitably and ensure that developing nations in the global south benefit just as much as the global north. It's good for the ocean and it's good for humanity because it demonstrates that we can still successfully deliver multilateral agreements, even considering the complicated geopolitical space that we're in.

Is the treaty text strong enough? What are the holes?
The text has only just been released and it hasn't been legally ‘cleaned’, as they call it, or even adopted by all the states. So that's a really important next step. We don't have the full detailed analysis on all of the holes yet. What we can say is that we’re a bit concerned about the environmental impact assessment process not being as strong as we would like. There's also the potential for some countries to opt out of the marine protected area declaration. So it’s definitely not perfect, but it is a huge step forward because it gives us a solid foundation for protecting the ocean and doing better. We’re really focused on getting the treaty adopted, then we’ll move quickly onto getting it ratified so that we can start proposing marine protected areas, getting them implemented at sea, and getting those impact assessment processes into force so that we can better manage activities and their impacts.

Right now, we have the biodiversity and climate crisis breathing down our neck — we don't really have time to waste. The key task now is getting parties to the United Nations to adopt the test text and then get 60 of those to ratify the treaty so that it can come into force and we can get on with the job of actually protecting the ocean and all of its amazing biodiversity. Also, so it can continue to mitigate the climate crisis.

What about oceans and climate? What are the links?
The ocean is critical to climate mitigation and adaptation. It's incredibly important in that it's the largest store of carbon on the planet and it absorbs around 30 per cent of our CO2 emissions every year. The ocean absorbs over 90 per cent of the extra human-made heat and without that, the temperature on the planet would be more than 30 degrees hotter than what it is. We are seeing 1.1 degrees of warming now and we're already seeing some extreme results from that change. Imagine an extra 30.

It's absolutely fundamental to protecting us from radical climate change and from the results of our insane CO2 and greenhouse gas production. The ocean is full of life. We know that the planet relies upon the biological pump of the ocean, which is made up of trillions of marine life — fish, whales, tiny planktons. The movement of those creatures is critical to the sequestration and storage of that excess carbon into the ocean. Without a healthy biological pump filled with healthy fish populations and marine life, it can't do that job as well. Habitats like sea grasses, mangroves, kelp and the seabed are really important to the long-term storage of that carbon, so impacts like bottom trawling are incredibly damaging on a number of levels.

What is the High Seas Alliance?
It’s an alliance of over 40 non-government organisations from around the world and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Our main goal is to protect the high seas and the biodiversity of the high seas, and to ensure that the resources are managed sustainably and transparently.

What does Australia need to do now?
Australia has played a good and positive role in the treaty negotiations — what we really need from them now as part of the High Ambition Coalition is to push to adopt the treaty as soon as possible, so that we can ratify it by the next UN Ocean Conference in 2025.

Can you explain what ratifying actually means?
It just means making the international law relevant and applicable to the national law. So Australia might need to add some text to its existing laws or amend an existing law, so that it agrees with and is consistent with the new international UN treaty.

"My big dream is for people to appreciate how bloody amazing the ocean is and how important it is to all of us.” – Rebecca Hubbard

What’s your big dream for our ocean?
My big dream is for people to appreciate how bloody amazing the ocean is and how important it is to all of us. I don't get in the surf anywhere near enough and go diving anywhere near enough, but I know that the ocean is keeping me alive every day!

How can we take action for the high seas — as surfers, salty crew and ocean lovers?
Follow the High Seas Alliance on social media (here and here) and keep up to speed with what's happening. We need to mobilise people’s support, so talk to your friends and family about how important it is that we protect the high seas. We need to let the Australian government know that Australians care about the high seas so that they keep driving forward the treaty process and we can get marine protected areas on the high seas by 2030.

Support the high seas treaty protecting the ocean here.

Opening image: A humpback calf off the coast of Tahiti. The humpbacks migrate to Tahiti to give birth in the southern winter, before heading south in summer to feed in Antarctica. Photo Hayden O’Neill

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