The High Seas Treaty: For Life Beyond the Law

Date: 21st July 2021

Author: Britney Hay

Beyond what the eye can see from our crystalline shores lies a vast and unexplored underwater world that  sustains us all. Up to two-hundred nautical miles from State  coastlines is the high seas, or international waters, making up more than half of the world’s ocean. 

A humpback whale ‘waving’ from the ocean. Photo by Richard Brown/FFI.

The high seas generate most of the World’s oxygen, is one of the largest havens of biodiversity on the planet, and is a massive carbon sink — making the high seas critical in our fight against climate change. But like so many of the Earth’s ecosystems, the high seas finds itself threatened by factors including (but not limited to) pollution, climate change, and overfishing. 

Fortunately, there is an international treaty under negotiation at the United Nations that has the potential to turn the tide on the ocean crisis. This treaty should give us, as Caribbean people, some sense of relief as we, once again, find ourselves warily hoping for some form of protection from the economic, environmental, and societal blows that come from decisions made by countries less impacted by climate change. 

Graphic from the #ListenToTheOcean campaign urging world leaders to take action for our oceans.

The High Seas Treaty will be a legally binding international treaty that puts a formal structure in place to conserve and manage life on the high seas. Scientists and conservationists of all ages across the globe are calling for a treaty that meets the demands of an ocean under severe threat—one that is comprehensive, ambitious, and inclusive. 

You might be wondering, then, what could something like that possibly look like. Fortunately, you are in the right place. There are five main elements to the High Seas Treaty; here is a brief snapshot of what a treaty that ticks all the right boxes, under each element, looks like:

  1. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

High seas ecosystems, critical to the continuation of life in the ocean, are conserved by the establishment of fully protected, well-managed networks of marine protected areas.

  1. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)

Any proposed activity on the high seas that may negatively affect marine life is prematurely evaluated by scientists and relevant stakeholders.

  1. Access & Benefit Sharing of Marine Genetic Resources

Developing nations have access to, and are able to benefit from, biological genetic materials discovered on the high seas.

  1. Capacity-Building & Marine Technology Transfer

Developing nations have the capacity, technology, and educational/research opportunities necessary to participate in deep sea science.

  1. Cross-cutting Issues (These are issues that affect a number of elements and are integrated throughout the new agreement)

A treaty that protects all forms of marine life (from plankton to fish to whales), compliments and coordinates with existing organizations working to safeguard the ocean and marine life, and has measures in place to settle disputes among participating countries so continual conservation progress can be made. 

Surfers Against Sewage protesting for a ‘green and blue’ recovery at the 2021 G7 Summit.

This treaty targets the largest occupied habitat on the planet and is an essential stepping stone for addressing biodiversity loss. Although we may all feel far removed from the woes of such a vast, faraway ecosystem like the high seas, I beg you to consider that ocean boundaries do not exist for wildlife—they were drawn by us. Therefore, the marine life that Caribbean communities across the region depend on to feed our families, to put money in our pockets, to draw visitors from abroad to our shores, to help build our economies, and to keep our local ecosystems healthy so we can survive hurricanes and tropical storms—they are all impacted by what happens on the high seas and are equally at risk when our ocean is in jeopardy. 

According to the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) in Trinidad & Tobago, “What happens in international waters affects all of us—it affects the biodiversity and health of our national waters, livelihoods of coastal communities, and economic sectors such as tourism and shipping.”

It is never too late for us to be vocal about our advocacy for change, and it is time that all Caribbean people raise their voices against the issues that are already disproportionately impacting us. 

To learn more about the High Seas Treaty and how you can support the treaty we need, visit highseasalliance.org. 

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