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When I tell people I was at the United Nations in New York last week to closely watch the high seas treaty negotiations I can see their train of thought. UN, that sounds grand. New York, food and the Statue of Liberty, nice. But high seas? That’s the point at which their eyes glaze over. I leave out the part about being there for the IGC (Intergovernmental conference) on BNNJ (biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction). Because those kind of acronyms spanner the thought process of any normal person, myself included. Even the concept of biodiversity is confusing enough. But the high seas really matter. For a start they are 45% of the earth’s surface. They belong to every one of us. They are the reason we can breathe and a major reason why our planet is cool enough to be habitable.

Through a selfish surfing prism, the high seas are the place that the storms are made. It’s down there in the mid Atlantic, something to do with the Sahara and hot and cold water. A little while later and we’ve got long-range swell travelling across thousands of miles of sea. That’s the high seas, also called international waters, as a broad rule anywhere outside of the 200 nautical mile EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) belonging to each country. That makes up two-thirds of the oceans and 90% of global available habitat for life. These vast oceanic wildernesses are anything but empty. Areas of the high seas are teeming with life and nutrients, deep-sea corals and megafauna breeding grounds. The high seas include marine rainforests, underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal fields that may hold the keys to all life on earth. If properly protected, the high seas could provide sanctuaries for bluefin tuna, sharks and cetaceans.

All of this is hard to understand. Apart from a glimpse from an aeroplane window, most of us will never see the high seas up close. A tuna steak or bit of beach plastic might unwittingly be a connection. It’s easy to think that this distance makes the high seas irrelevant to our increasingly busy, pressured lives. Even as someone who thinks about it nearly constantly, I often have to remind myself why it matters and also why it is under threat. International waters are carnage - pollution, illegal and unreported overfishing (including terrible human rights abuses and modern slavery) and a complete lack of protection for vulnerable ecosystems. Our mission at the Blue Marine Foundation is 30% of ocean highly protected by 2030. To achieve this, a process to create high seas marine protected areas (MPAs) must be established. If an ecologically-coherent, science-backed network of massive scale marine protected areas could be created on the high seas, they could boost biodiversity (in real times this means fish we can eat) in regions that are currently decimated. Even if you don't care about the fate of European Eels or Atlantic krill, which I do deeply, the idea of a permanent protein bank for the population of the world should resonate.

The crazy thing is that under UNCLOS (The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) the high seas are the common heritage of humankind. We all have a stake in their future and yet the global public, who ‘own’ them, barely know what they are. UNCLOS permits certain freedoms in international waters and this makes the treaty negotiations incredibly complex. Nuanced issues such as deep sea mining, marine genetic resources, benefit sharing and technology transfer, existing fishing and regional management interests will require patient, diplomatic negotiation if an accord is to be reached. Global civil society, headed up by the High Seas Alliance, is watching closely, intervening where we can and waiting with baited breath.

Some years ago, leading scientists came together to state that 30% of global ocean should be highly protected to avoid a collapse of the marine ecosystem. The UK government recently announced its ambition to protect (they left out highly) 30% of ocean by 2030. UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life Below Water) includes the target of 10% of ocean under protection by 2020. This goal, the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) Aichi Target includes all ocean ecosystems and it is unlikely to be met. Which means that the United Nations treaty to safeguard this huge shared resource and establish meaningful protection on the high seas could not be more timely or vital.

This really is the marine equivalent of the Paris Agreement, a universal, legally-binding deal that united the nations of the world to tackle climate change. What is happening at the UN in the run up to 2020 is our only chance to sustainably manage the high seas, out of sight but of vital importance to all life on earth. There will be three further conferences to determine what this treaty means. For the high seas, our global ocean, everything hangs in the balance.

Written by Dan Crockett.


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