On 04 March, Rena Lee, President of the UN Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), announced that “the ship has reached the shore,” referring to the last compromise and successfully negotiated to stumble block of this historic treaty, which marked the apogee of over two decades of negotiations to protect the ample internationally ungoverned space of the ocean. The last time the countries came together to gather political will during geopolitical tensions to protect biodiversity was on 01 December 1959 during the cold war to declare Antarctica a place for peace and science.
The draft agreement of the ‘The New High Seas Treaty’ emphasises the need to address the planet’s largest unregulated biosphere for the sustainable use of resources and biodiversity protection. It covers the expansive portion of the ocean beyond national boundaries and will provide a legal framework for designating vast marine protected areas (MPAs) to protect against marine life degradation and sharing of resources. It is necessary to identify, monitor and regulate vulnerable areas to address the commitment of protecting 30 Percent by 2030 endorsed by COP 15 in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework in December 2022. Exit options and other unique provisions for the Arctic or China Sea and other geopolitically tense areas are also mentioned to avoid disagreements and conflicts within the agreement.
The stumbling block of this treaty was how to appropriately share marine genetic resources (MGR) and wealth, which separated the Global South and North. Due to their potential for application in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, MGR, which are made up of the genetic material of bacteria, corals, krill, seaweed, and deep-sea marine sponges, are gaining more scientific and commercial interest.
The agreement is legally binding and establishes a new global authority for the high seas, complete with an executive body called “COP,” a secretariat, and a scientific council. It is based on certain principles and approaches like the polluter-pays principle, the principle of the common heritage of humankind, the freedom of marine scientific research, and other freedoms of the high seas.
In addition, an approach for maintaining and restoring ecosystem integrity, including the carbon cycling functions that support the ocean’s role in climate while also increasing ecosystems’ resilience, is practiced. Signatories are also tasked with conducting environmental impact assessments before exploitation, exchanging marine technology with other littoral states, and monitoring the space for other threats.
What are the High Seas and the threats present on them?
States currently govern up to only 200 nautical miles of seas from their coasts, delineated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But beyond the nautical boundaries are the high seas, which only one percent are protected. States have access to freedoms, including the right to overfly, navigate, and install underwater cables. The high seas cannot be the subject of any claims to sovereignty. Once expressed as desolate, it is now considered a treasury of rich biodiversity and marine resources. However, they are being exploited by technological advances enabling them to deplete fisheries and seabed minerals. Deep-sea ecosystems may change or be destroyed by machine-aided excavation and gauging of the ocean bottom. As a result, there will be a loss of species in addition to fragmentation or loss of the structure and functionality of the ecosystem.
Increasing cargo ship transportation and their Bilge Dumping practices also threaten the open ocean. Bilgewater, which gathers in the bottom of a ship, is a mixture of fluids from the engine room and other potentially harmful materials like lubricants, cleaning agents, and metals like lead and arsenic. It is expensive to process this oily effluent, whether by treating it to eliminate contaminants or by discharging it at the port. Some ships simply dump it into the ocean with portable pumps, which can be a significant hazard to marine life, to save operational expenses.
Another threat in the high seas is the Great garbage patch, which carries and culminates tonnes of plastic debris released through river exits. They are carried and formed by ocean currents and “gyres.” There are five gyres in the ocean. One in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean, and two in the Pacific Ocean. Garbage patches of differing sizes are located in each gyre. Cleaning up these garbage heaps and systematically disposing of them is a heinous task.
In addition, Climate change is heating the oceans, which may result in a mass extinction of marine life like the Permian Extinction experienced 250 million years ago, which extinguished 90 percent of marine species. The oceans have mitigated the worst of climate change by absorbing 90 percent of the heat caused by global warming and providing us with 50 percent of the oxygen.
What are the existing treaties on High Seas, and what are their issues?
About 20 international organisations oversee human activity in the high seas in accordance with UNCLOS, although their authority is constrained. In the shipping industry, for instance, the International Maritime Organization is in charge of safety and pollution control, whereas regional fisheries management organisations are in charge of particular fish populations. Yet, a lot of marine species migrate and regularly switch between various environments into the wild ocean which are unprotected from human activities.
The International Seabed Treaty is less concerned with conserving the environment and more interested in advancing the ultimate extraction of valuable mineral accretions from the seabed. Exploratory mining licences have never been denied. The contracting entity does environmental impact assessments; they are not independently verified and investigated. The ISA dismisses the worries of environmental groups like Greenpeace about defending the seabed from similar mining in the future or from the several very detrimental environmental side effects that would be involved.
What does the treaty pose to International Security?
First, an increased presence of private players. The implementation process of the treaty will see an increased presence of private maritime players as the agreement does not apply to the Navy warships. However, they are expected to behave reasonably with the agreement. Ocean conservation is currently led by non-governmental organisations funded by philanthropists, bureaucrats, and governments.
Second, increased monitoring and surveillance. To assess environmental impacts, monitor and traffic control ships, and provide constant surveillance over an expansive area will require advanced remote sensing and imaging technologies. There will be a need for marine spatial analysis and planning to track human activities and the ecosystem. New marine technologies must be exchanged between the developing and developed states to explore the deep ocean and seabed’s for research and exploitation. Increased monitoring will be a critical challenge for the littoral states to move their submarines in stealth and secrecy.
Third, potential for new marine resource-induced conflict. Though the agreement states that the marine samples and genetic coding will be shared, it does not mention who can further exploit the resources and with whom it shares. Does it share with the states involved in the exploration or those proximate to the resource.? Here, Global North faces the question of the free-riding problem and whom to free-ride its services.