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Slow Progress Leaves High Seas Unprotected One Year On from Historic Agreement

The High Seas Treaty is seen as vital to meeting an international target to protect a third of oceans by 2030

A sperm whale swimming in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius. Photo: Wildestanimal/Alamy

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The high seas remain unprotected one year on from an historic global agreement to create protected areas as just two countries have ratified it.

In a rare moment of international consensus and a significant victory for environmental campaigners, a year ago today the world’s nations signed a treaty pledging to protect waters lying outside of their national jurisdictions. 

The agreement is seen as vital to meeting an international target to protect a third of oceans by 2030, however, governments – including the UK’s – are dragging their heels on its adoption, with campaigners saying progress has been “deeply disappointing”.

Just 1% of waters designated as the ‘high seas’ are currently protected, leaving the rest – and the species living in them – at risk from activities such as illegal or over-fishing, deep-sea mining, and pollution from shipping. 

The High Seas Treaty would create vast protected areas offering tighter regulations, but so far only Chile and the tiny island nation of Palau have approved the new regime – with 58 more countries required before it comes into force.

Simon Walmsley, chief marine advisor at the World Wildlife Fund UK, said that the treaty’s goals will “not be realised unless swift action is taken”. “The world cannot afford to delay ratification,” he added.

Reshima Sharma, a political advisor at Greenpeace UK, said: “The treaty must be signed into law by at least 60 countries and proposals for a network of ocean sanctuaries must begin without delay.”

It took 10 years of intense negotiations, followed by 38 hours of talks at the UN headquarters in New York, before an agreement was finally reached to protect the high seas on 4 March 2023. It was formally adopted in June.

A year earlier, nations attending the UN biodiversity conference had agreed to a general target to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 – and the new treaty is seen as vital to achieving this goal.


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The high seas were created by a global agreement in the 1980s and cover nearly half of the surface of the planet. The designation refers to oceans which lie outside national jurisdiction, meaning all countries can ship, fish or research in the waters.

According to the High Seas Alliance, they are ecologically vital and home to some of the largest areas of biodiversity on Earth, supporting huge numbers of marine species. However, only 1.2% are currently protected, leaving these animals at risk from a large range of threats.

Environmental groups have said that activity in the high seas, such as fishing or deep-sea mining, could be damaging to marine life or create pollution.

Rebecca Hubbard, director of the High Seas Alliance, said: “It will be impossible to achieve [the 30%] target without including the protection of the high seas, which is why this new treaty is essential.”

The treaty would establish new marine protected areas in the high seas, placing limits on fishing, shipping routes and mining activities. Such activity will be permissible, but only if it does not damage marine life.

“Once implemented, the treaty should help the global oceans to continue to buffer the impacts of climate change,” Walmsley said. This “will help the global oceans to be resilient enough to keep this buffering capacity and protect the planet’s largest carbon sink.”

The treaty will not officially come into force until 60 countries have ratified it and made it law within their own nations. While more than 80 countries have signed the agreement, official ratification seems some way off at present, with just two having taken the next step.

The UK was among the first countries to sign and the agreement was opened for parliamentary scrutiny the following month. At the time, Development Minister Andrew Mitchell suggested in a statement that the legislation would be introduced following the next election.

Asked for the Government’s timetable in December, he was vague, saying: “Work is in hand on the legislation and other measures needed to translate the detailed and complex provisions of the agreement into UK law before we can ratify the agreement, which will be taken forward when parliamentary time allows.”

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Sharma said delaying until after the election “is really disappointing” and that the UK needs to “show ocean leadership” as this is “crucial to help defend precious wildlife, to limit the climate crisis and to provide food security for billions of people”.

Hubbard also said this was “deeply disappointing” and that the UK “risks falling behind its allies around the world in committing to ratify the High Seas Treaty swiftly”.

Walmsley said he recognised that these processes take time, but urged the government to ratify “as soon as practicable”.

Once the treaty is approved and ratified by 60 countries, it will then come into force and the work to create the new protected areas of the high seas can fully begin. 

Experts point out that there is some urgency to this. According to Greenpeace, the treaty should be ratified by next year’s UN Ocean Conference, in order to leave five years for the creation of the areas.

Some work towards the goal has started already, however, with countries laying down some necessary groundwork ahead of official ratification.

Walmsley said: “The good news is that countries have already started the preparation work needed for marine protected area proposals which will help implement requirements and deliver on protection and sustainable management in the high seas once the treaty is ratified.”

However, the 30% target could still be difficult to achieve unless agreement is reached in “record time”. 

Campaigners said there needs to be more political urgency if the goal is to be met.

“We have seen if there is political urgency governments can move quickly – the Paris Agreement on climate entered into force within a year of adoption,” Hubbard added. “We need this same level of ambition for this.”

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