High Seas Treaty: Challenges and Opportunities

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Opportunities and challenges of the high seas treaty

For the first time, the member states of the United Nations established a legal framework to protect biodiversity in international waters. Twenty years of efforts, discussions, disagreements, and marathon talks were necessary to finally agree on the High Seas Treaty. Right now, there are no unified regulations for this part of the ocean. Its implementation by the signatory countries will have a significant impact on biodiversity loss, pollution but also global warming. To sustainably manage and reduce the impact of human activities, the treaty should involve new requirements to be applied by the maritime industry.

Why a treaty for the high seas?

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994, defined regions in the ocean where coastal nations have jurisdiction over natural resources. These exclusive economic zones (EEZs) generally extend 200 nautical miles (about 370 km) from the territorial sea baseline. High seas refer to the ocean water column that lies beyond the EEZs. They cover almost half of the Earth’s entire surface.

UNCLOS allowed freedom of navigation, fishing, overflight, scientific research, laying submarine cables and pipelines, and making installations and artificial islands. Even if some activities are regulated in these waters like whaling or sea-bed mining, there are few rules and regulations related to marine species conservation. In 2004, a UN Resolution asked for the formation of a working group for the study of biodiversity issues. They met periodically and a recommendation was adopted to start working on establishing a legal framework. The UN General Assembly finally decided in 2017 to convene an intergovernmental conference to formulate a treaty. On 4 March 2023 at UN headquarters in New York, after years of negotiations and debates, the Nations of the world agreed on the first-ever treaty to safeguard international waters.

The High Seas Treaty, also known as the BBNJ for “biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction”, is a significant diplomatic achievement and a historic deal to protect ocean life. Before it can enter into force, it must be ratified by 60 member states.

What are the BBNJ treaty's main focus points?

1. Equitable sharing of marine genetic resources

Ecosystems living in the ocean’s depth are adapted to the worst hostile conditions on Earth: no light, pressure, and little oxygen. These marine organisms provide unique molecules for pharmaceutical purposes and are mostly in international waters. Developing countries have no access to the technologies and finances to study them. The treaty guarantees that wealthy countries share equitably the non-monetary and monetary benefits from genetic resources.

2. Designation of marine protected areas (MPAs)

The identification of zones that need special protections is already part of the main environmental topics that IMO is focusing on. The Organisation issued a guideline to recognize Particularly Sensitive Areas (PSSAs) where vessels are subject to specific measures. Some countries have also established MPAs but they only cover 1 percent of international waters. The objective of MPAs is to be an area-based management tool to safeguard fragile regions. This measure is a further step toward reaching the goal of protecting 30 percent of the world’s ocean by 2030 as agreed at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference.

3. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs)

States planning to undertake an activity that can affect the environment must conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Sinay has recognized expertise in this field. And in particular on environmental impact assessments in all phases of an offshore project.

It will help to manage human activities and to contribute to a better knowledge of marine species. EIAs concern existing projects but also new ones like aquaculture. Standards and guidelines will be formulated to harmonize the process. A clearinghouse mechanism will retain the results of the assessments carried out by the parties. This open-access platform should be managed by a secretariat to centralize all the reports.

4. Capacity-building and marine technology transfer

Capacity-building and marine technology transfer provisions were part of the negotiations. Their aim is to ensure emerging countries and small islands have the support to reach the objectives laid out by the treaty. It encourages cooperation between the Nations to implement the sections related to marine genetic resources, EIAs, and area-based management tools. A Committee will be in charge of overseeing the application of these provisions.

Why is the High Seas Treaty also related to climate change?

Oceans have a major role in climate stabilization. They capture 90 percent of the excess heat and 25 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activities. With the increase in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, more CO2 dissolves in the oceans, and waters become warmer and more acidic. Due to these modifications in the ocean’s chemistry, the shells of vital marine species like shellfish cannot grow properly. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at least 41 percent of threatened marine species are impacted. In the fight against climate change, the shipping sector already used different ways to reduce CO2 emissions from sea freight. IMO has worked on a GHG strategy for a reduction in carbon intensity by 70 percent by 2050. To achieve this target, shipping companies have to be in compliance with carbon emissions regulations. If the decarbonization of the maritime industry is already on track, the absence of regulations in international waters has led to biodiversity loss and pollution. The implementation of the treaty is a chance to slow down the process and have a positive effect on global warming. Indeed, organisms living in the deep sea capture 33.8 million tons of carbon dioxide daily and store them in seabed sediments. This process of carbon storage by these ecosystems is also called “blue carbon”. The designation of protected areas ensures the preservation of this species.

ice melt due to climate change

What will be the impact on the shipping industry?

1. Restrictions in the MPAs

As the aim of MPAs is the conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity by reducing human impact, vessels passing through these zones will be subject to restrictions. Some of them could be:

  • Modification of shipping lanes;
  • Speed limits;
  • Use of new technologies;
  • Limitation of fishing or deep-sea mining;
  • Reduction of noise emissions.

At Sinay, we have already developed an Underwater Noise Emissions API to monitor noise emissions from the vessels. In fact, it has been proven that underwater noise has an impact on marine mammals. According to different sources, the main source of this pollution is commercial shipping

2. Application of the EIA

Ships will have to follow the environmental impact assessment provision. Before starting any project which could affect species, they may be asked to find solutions to reduce their impact. Some of them could be avoiding sensitive regions or harmful fishing practices. If they cannot find alternatives, the companies may be asked to cancel their project. To apply this provision correctly, another mandatory action is the recording of the effectiveness of their mitigation measures. Whether it is noise measurements, environmental impact monitoring, or emission monitoring, Sinay can help you!

This constant monitoring is a step forward for sustainable shipping.

environmental impact assessments explanation

3. Reconsideration of open-loop scrubbers

Researchers of Chalmers University in Sweden published a study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin in September 2022 regarding the impact of scrubbers in the Baltic Sea. They found that water discharged from vessels that used exhaust gas cleaning systems were responsible for up to 9 percent of certain carcinogenic and environmentally harmful emissions. If the scrubbers are effective devices for air quality control, the effect of wash waters on marine life is a controversial subject. The use of open-loop scrubbers may be a matter for discussion in the coming years.

4. Introduction of liability rules

With the principle of liability, ship owners are accountable if their vessels damage the environment, whether they are at fault or not. They will have to ensure their vessels are covered by their insurance in case of pollution in this part of the ocean. This principle of responsibility also applies to EIAs. If vessels are found to be not in compliance with this provision during inspections, they could be subject to penalties.

What are the next steps for the implementation of this treaty?

Following this finalisation of the treaty, it’s now time for countries to adopt it into their domestic law and then to meet again in order to get it ratified. Once done, the investigation and proposition of MPAs will start. The High Seas Alliance, a partnership of groups and organisations, has already found 8 areas which could be the first MPAs:

  • Salas y Gómez and Nazca in the south-east Pacific;
  • The Costa Rica thermal dome;
  • The Hawaiian-Emperor seamounts;
  • Walvis Ridge in the southern Atlantic;
  • The Sargasso sea;
  • The south Tasman sea;
  • The Lost City hydrothermal field in the north Atlantic;
  • Saya de Malha Bank in the Indian Ocean.

These propositions of MPAs will have to be reviewed by a technical body before being opened to consultation. The biggest challenge for the BBNJ treaty is its implementation with the setting up of an institutional arrangement. The signatory member states have to think about how they will practically implement these new regulations.


In conclusion, the High Seas Treaty represents a significant milestone in the global effort to protect the biodiversity of our oceans and combat the effects of global warming. Its provisions aim to safeguard the delicate balance of marine ecosystems and ensure the sustainable use of ocean resources. It is imperative that we recognize the importance of this treaty and take collective action to safeguard our oceans for future generations. Protecting the oceans is not just the responsibility of governments and environmental organizations, but also of individuals who must recognize the impact of their daily actions on the health of our seas. Therefore, it is crucial that everyone takes an active interest in ocean conservation and works towards a sustainable future for our planet.

Frequently Asked Questions About the High Seas Treaty

The High Seas Treaty is a proposed international agreement that aims to address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (i.e., the high seas).

It is necessary because the high seas cover nearly two-thirds of the world’s oceans, and there is currently no comprehensive legal framework to govern the conservation and sustainable use of its biodiversity.

The treaty is intended to fill this gap and ensure the protection and responsible management of high-seas biodiversity for future generations.

The focus points of the BBNJ treaty (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction) include:

  • Marine genetic resources, refer to the genetic material found on the high seas.
  • Area-based management tools, such as marine protected areas, to conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.
  • Environmental impact assessments, to evaluate the potential environmental impact of activities on high seas biodiversity.
  • Capacity building and technology transfer, to help developing countries participate in the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity

The impact of the BBNJ treaty on the maritime industry will depend on the specific provisions of the agreement.

However, it is likely that the treaty will introduce new requirements for environmental impact assessments, access to marine genetic resources, and the establishment of marine protected areas in certain high seas areas.

The High Seas Treaty is related to climate change because the high seas play a critical role in regulating the Earth’s climate.

They absorb a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help regulate global temperatures.

However, high-seas biodiversity is also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including ocean acidification and rising temperatures.

The treaty aims to protect high seas biodiversity, which is important for maintaining the health and resilience of the ocean and its ability to mitigate climate change.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a key component of the BBNJ treaty, as they are an effective tool for conserving and sustainably using high-seas biodiversity.

MPAs can help protect fragile regions of the ocean by limiting human activities that can harm marine ecosystems, such as fishing, mining, and oil and gas exploration.

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