High Seas Treaty: A unique opportunity for ocean science

The new United Nations treaty which provides a legal framework for the establishment of vast marine protected areas (MPAs) represents enormous opportunities for ocean science and the building of marine-related scientific research capacity around the world, experts say.

The High Seas Treaty reached at the UN headquarters in New York on 4 March (officially known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty or BBNJ agreement) was concluded after 19 years of negotiations. It is a legally binding instrument and is considered essential to achieving the goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 – agreed to at the 2022 UN biodiversity conference.

Described by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as “crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution”, the treaty is designed to protect the oceans that are beyond any country’s territory.

The high seas are defined as the waters that are 200 nautical miles from the coast of maritime countries; they are international open waters that all countries can use for marine business such as shipping, fishing and marine research. Before the treaty, laws to protect ocean waters and biodiversity beyond countries’ territorial boundaries applied to only 1.2% of the high seas.

In terms of the new treaty, activities can still occur in the protected areas but only if “consistent with the conservation objectives”, meaning it doesn’t damage marine life. This could mean limiting fishing activities, shipping routes and exploration activities such as deep-sea mining.

The treaty, which took 39 hours to negotiate, sought to strike a balance between the need for conservation, and the exploitation or extraction of resources, not least in terms of ownership of marine genetic resources and access to benefits arising from them.

Richer nations currently have resources to explore the deep ocean, but poorer countries are concerned that benefits are not shared equally, and this has been a central point in the negotiations.

What role for science?

Former chair of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) Professor Peter M Haugan, who was involved in the creation of the UN Decade of Ocean Science (2021-2030), told University World News he has been inspired by the fact that many of the actors connected with the treaty have approached the IOC to discuss the potential of the treaty for science.

Haugan, who is now policy director at the Institute of Marine Research, and a professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Bergen in Norway, said research-based knowledge needs to be at the heart of the BBNJ agreement and urged the scientific community to increase its efforts to influence relevant policy-makers.

“Who knows what marine genetic resources are? What can they be used for? What is their value? For whom? Should they be shared? Can people just go out there and get these resources? Can we make patents out of this?”

An editorial in Nature on 15 March 2023 described the High Seas Treaty as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity for researchers and funders to use every idea and instrument available to preserve the health of the seas”.

Among these opportunities, the editorial referred to the building of research capacity in low- and middle-income countries, improvement in the evidence available to decision-makers and the potential for fresh scientific collaboration.

“Scientists will have an important role in ensuring the treaty’s ultimate success. In part, this will involve gathering or improving the evidence to support the establishment and maintenance of strong marine protected areas and to inform stringent environmental impact assessments,” it said.

Existing activities: University of Bergen.

One university well-placed to make a leading contribution here is the University of Bergen (UiB) in Norway which has been chosen by the United Nations Academic Impact as its SDG 14 (Life below water) Hub for a second three-year period from 2021-24.

Together with partners such as the Institute of Marine Research, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the Research Council of Norway, the university is hosting an event, One Ocean Week, next month (April) that will, inter alia, examine the intersection between the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed at the COP15 meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in December last year as a platform from which to preserve nature at large – and the new High Seas Treaty, or BBNJ agreement.

The event is also a contribution to ongoing work in the UN Decade of Ocean Science aimed at increasing ocean literacy at all levels, from policy-makers to the public.

The work also forms part of a broader commitment to the oceans based on what Bruce Reed, former director of European Economic Development Services, a consultancy service focused on EU Research programmes and strategy, termed Norway’s “unique position on sustainable exploitation and development of the seas”.

Norway as a leading ocean nation

With one of the second most extensive coastlines in the world after Canada, a long history as a maritime nation, and an economy closely tied to ocean industries, Norway justifiably considers itself to be an international leader in ocean management.

The country’s prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre became the co-chair (together with Palau president Surangel Whipps Jr) of the international High-level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which comprises heads of state and governments from 14 countries which have committed themselves to 100% sustainable use of their ocean areas.

On 17 April, to coincide with One Ocean Week, the Norwegian government is to host a separate ocean conference in Bergen to put the international ocean panel's work into a national context and deal, among others, with issues related to investment in the blue economy, offshore wind, food from the sea and blue forests.

According to Reed, Norway’s fisheries activities have “always been important, and collaborative research between all partners involved in the process (including fishermen, fish processors, government research at IMR, and all the universities) has increased both the credibility and the robustness of the procedures for developing and analysing their sustainability.”

He said Norway’s activities have been “extremely well endorsed internationally, with a number of EU-supported projects in Bergen and Trondheim on different aspects of sustainability of the seas and research from basic to applied sciences receiving hundreds of EU researchers who have come to the West of Norway to pursue their own research projects alongside Norwegian partners and using Norwegian facilities”.

Reed said the Norwegian Research Council (NFR) recognised the importance of these activities in setting its own long term strategic agenda, and made marine environmental research a priority.

As such the country has an active interest in the legal protection of the ocean and has played a key role in shaping the law of the seas, according to Edvard Hviding, professor of social anthropology at UiB and founding director of the Bergen Pacific Studies Research Group, who also participated in the negotiations at the United Nations from 2018 as an adviser to the Pacific small island developing state of Palau.

There is also serious interest in seeing the treaty implemented. While significant in and of itself, the treaty will not come into immediate effect. Countries will need to meet again to formally adopt the agreement and more work will be required before the treaty can be implemented.

Challenges to implementation

Liz Karan, project director of Pews Trust Ocean governance team, told the BBC: “It will take some time to take effect. Countries have to ratify it [legally adopt it] for it to enter force. Then there are a lot of institutional bodies like the Science and Technical Committee that have to get set up.”

For Hviding, a significant challenge to implementation will be funding.

“First, money needs to be raised to run the contractual body,” said Hviding. “Last year saw great excitement when a global agreement on plastic in the ocean was reached. However, financing of this plastic deal is yet to materialise. One challenge is to hold the world’s governments accountable, not the least Norway which had a key historical role in shaping the law of the seas.

“Long-term stable funding is necessary to ensure that all the agreement's focal points, including food, minerals, and genetic resources, are followed up closely,” said Hviding.

“Who will operate the new ocean agreement? It is still undecided if this will become part of an existing framework, such as the annual COP climate meetings hosted by the IPCC, or if there will be an independent framework,” Hviding said.

Reed said funding to take forward the activities could come from various sources – “international (UN and EU at institutional level), from the Norwegian government (leaving it to decide how best to finance the activities and without needing to touch the pension funds), and the private sector (as both national and international companies have been involved in sustainable exploitation of the mineral resources of the inshore and deep seas, and Norway's ownership and participation in inshore, middle distance and international fisheries gives it both unique insights into what is involved in SDGs, and resources to contribute to their long term furtherance)”.

He said what is at stake globally is “more important than what may be at stake in the waters” around the EU, but as internationally credible partners in global institutions with established institutional capacity, Norway is well placed to work with international partners around the globe.

“Mobilising the national, European, and wider international partnerships would be a worthy objective of local and national institutions with a long term stake in sustainable exploitation and development of the seas,” Reed said.

Fair distribution of marine resources

Professor Lise Øvreås of the University of Bergen said it is important that the BBNJ agreement is implemented to ensure that the discovery of new marine resources and any profits from these are fairly distributed between developed and developing countries.

“When we talk about the ocean, we often discuss only the surface of the planet. The ocean makes up almost 70% of our planet and two-thirds of this again is the high seas. We easily forget the full volume of the ocean and all the living creatures found in the deep seas. The ocean contains a majority of the world's biological diversity,” she said.

“Ownership and management of marine genetic resources, as part of humanity's common heritage, was one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the BBNJ agreement,” she said.

“Discussions on benefit sharing created a tense atmosphere during the negotiations, and for a reason. The ocean holds enormous potential, not least in terms of curing the diseases of the future, regenerative medicine, biotechnological innovations, and growing the food of the future.”

“This treaty is a big deal,” said Rashid Sumaila, professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and the director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.

“When our group published our first paper on high seas MPAs in 2007, 0% of the high seas was protected. Today just under 2% is MPA. If this treaty is fully implemented we could end up with 30% of the surface area of the high seas under protection – that would be significant!