The High Seas Treaty: Key provisions & challenges


    In News

    • The United Nations (UN) recently reached an agreement: The High Seas Treaty, which is a critical step forward in saving the planet.

    About High seas

    • About:
      • High seas are open ocean areas that are outside the jurisdiction of any country.
      • The high seas comprise 64 per cent of the ocean surface and about 43 per cent of the Earth
      • These areas are home to about 2.2 million marine species and up to a trillion different kinds of microorganisms, according to the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI), a network of global experts on oceans.
    • Threats:
      • The high seas face many threats, including climate change, overfishing, and pollution
      • They absorb heat from the atmosphere and are affected by phenomena like El Nino, which can endanger marine flora and fauna
      • The high seas are facing acidification, which could harm marine life, and thousands of species could face extinction by 2100 if current trends continue. 
      • Climate change is already influencing, and is being influenced by, ocean systems, and is exacerbating the pressures on marine biodiversity from unregulated human activities

    Governance of the High seas

    • UNCLOS:
      • A number of regional, multilateral and global legal frameworks exist to govern the activities in the oceans. 
      • The most important of which is the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), a 1982 agreement that has near-universal acceptance.
    • Rights and duties of countries:
      • Among other things, UNCLOS defined 
        • The rights and duties of countries in the oceans, 
        • The extent of ocean areas over which countries could claim sovereignty, and 
        • The legal status of marine resources. 
      • It also specified a set of general rules for a range of activities in the oceans including navigation, scientific research, and deep-sea mining.
    • EEZ:
      • The treaty established exclusive economic zones (EEZ), ocean areas up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coastline, where a country would have exclusive rights over all economic resources such as fish, oil, minerals, and gas. 
      • The high seas are the areas beyond the EEZ of any country.
    • Shortcomings of UNCLOS:
      • The UNCLOS came into being much before climate change and biodiversity became major global concerns
      • Though it asks countries to protect the ocean ecology and conserve its resources, it does not provide the specific mechanisms or processes to do so. 

    High Seas Treaty

    • About:
      • It is also referred to as the ‘Paris Agreement for the Ocean’. 
      • The agreement was reached during the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), which was held in New York
      • The High Seas Treaty will work as an implementation agreement under the UNCLOS.
    • What will happen after its ratification?
      • Once the treaty becomes international law after ratification by member countries, it will regulate all human activities in the high seas with the objective of ensuring that ocean resources, including biodiversity, are utilised in a sustainable manner, and their benefits are shared equitably among countries.
      • Once adopted, the treaty will be legally binding.
    • Significance of the treaty:
      • Oceans are an integral part of the global climate cycle, and perform a range of ecological services including absorption of carbon dioxide and excess heat, because of which this treaty is also being considered as a landmark in the efforts to keep the planet habitable.
      • In terms of its significance and impact, this treaty is being compared to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. 

    Key provisions of the High Seas Treaty

    • The treaty has four main objectives:
      • Demarcation of marine protected areas (MPAs), rather like there are protected forests or wildlife areas;
      • Sustainable use of marine genetic resources and equitable sharing of benefits arising from them;
      • Initiation of the practice of environmental impact assessments for all major activities in the oceans; and
      • Capacity building and technology transfer.
    • Marine protected areas (MPAs): 
      • MPAs are where ocean systems, including biodiversity, are under stress, either due to human activities or climate change. 
        • These can be called the national parks or wildlife reserves of the oceans. 
      • Treaty provisions:
        • Activities in these areas will be highly regulated, and conservation efforts similar to what happens in forest or wildlife zones, will be undertaken. 
        • Only about 1.44 percent of high seas are currently protected, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
    • Marine genetic resources: 
      • Oceans host very diverse life forms, many of which can be useful for human beings in areas like drug development. 
        • Genetic information from these organisms is already being extracted, and their benefits are being investigated. 
      • Treaty provisions:
        • The treaty seeks to ensure that any benefits arising out of such efforts, including monetary gains, are free from strong intellectual property rights controls, and are equitably shared amongst all. 
        • The knowledge generated from such expeditions are also supposed to remain openly accessible to all.
    • Environment impact assessments: 
      • The high seas are international waters that are open for use by all countries. 
      • Treaty provisions:
        • Under the provisions of the new treaty, commercial or other activities that can have significant impact on the marine ecosystem, or can cause large-scale pollution in the oceans, would require an environmental impact assessment to be done
        • The results of this exercise have to be shared with the international community.
    • Capacity building and technology transfer: 
      • The treaty lays a lot of emphasis on this, mainly because a large number of countries, especially small island states and landlocked nations, do not have the resources or the expertise to meaningfully participate in the conservation efforts, or to take benefits from the useful exploitation of marine resources. 
      • At the same time, the obligations put on them by the Treaty, to carry out environmental impact assessments for example, can be an additional burden.


    • Need of addressing details:
      • The details of all the major contentious provisions are still to be worked out. 
      • Many issues remain unaddressed, including the mechanisms for policing the protected areas, the fate of the projects that are assessed to be heavily polluting, and the resolution of disputes.
    • The process of ratification is not expected to be easy:
      • The treaty is the result of more than 20 years of protracted negotiations. 
      • It took UNCLOS 12 years to become international law because the necessary number of ratifications was not reached. The Kyoto Protocol, the precursor to the Paris Agreement, also took eight years to come into effect.

    Way ahead

    • The agreement is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for researchers and funders to use every idea and instrument available to preserve the health of the seas.
    • In redressing our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ relationship with the oceans, the high seas treaty will allow us to rethink how we use our ocean commons in ways that benefit the majority.


    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] Discuss the significance of governing the activities in the ocean. How will High Seas Treaty address the threats faced by the oceans?