A legally binding agreement – but what next?

Minna Epps, head of IUCN Ocean, takes us behind the scenes of the historic UN High Seas Treaty, and explains what needs to happen next for it to be put into action

In March, the President of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) announced that delegates had reached a legally binding agreement to help protect the high seas. The text, officially the BBNJ Agreement, but known as the High Seas Treaty, is crucial for enforcing the pledge made by countries at last year’s COP15 to protect a third of the sea and land by 2030. Just 1% of these parts of the sea are currently protected, despite making up two-thirds of the world’s oceans, and those often lack effective management.

IUCN has been working to protect biodiversity in the high seas for over two decades. In recent years, the Union has been providing independent scientific, technical and legal advice to the state delegates of the BBNJ. We’ve been hosting expert workshops and presenting case studies on establishing marine protected areas (MPAs). During the pandemic we held remote events to keep the dialogue going between UN sessions, as well as other capacity-building activities targeting the Global South.

In March, I headed IUCN’s delegation to the BBNJ talks in New York. We were there for two weeks, listening and providing independent advice, and holding events for delegates to come together. The conference was due to finish on Friday at 6pm, but we all knew that these things can drag on into the early hours.

As delegates negotiated late into the night, it became utterly surreal, with people scattered everywhere, trying to get some rest. At one point I had a US Secretary of State sleeping on a chair next to me. A colleague from IUCN Oceania, from Fiji, bought in a cooler of Kava, a muddy-looking drink which is a sedative, and was serving that in the UN lobby.

The conference was presided over by Rena Lee, Singapore’s Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues. It was she that memorably announced that “the ship has reached the shore” when the Treaty was finally agreed late on Saturday evening. One thing I found interesting was that, as a woman, Lee brought a different, inclusive and very open style of leadership – and in fact had been criticised earlier in the conference for being too inclusive. Being inclusive is much harder, but she did it and she did it her way.

Shark The Treaty aims to safeguard the ecosystem of the high sea Photo: GETTY

Package deal

The BBNJ Agreement is a package deal, committing to the development of an area-based management tool which includes marine protected areas and environmental impact assessments, but also fair access and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources in the high seas, and capacity building to support these.

Before the Treaty, management and governance of all this was fragmented.

There are other things the Treaty achieved that didn’t get widespread media attention. The text now includes mention of not just biodiversity but climate change, ocean acidification and plastic pollution. They also changed ‘mankind’ to ‘humankind’, which is important in terms of gender-neutral language.

The biggest win for IUCN is the fact you will now be able to establish marine protected areas without the need for consensus. One country or one vote can no longer block MPAs from going forward, which is what we’ve seen in the Southern Ocean.

There may be potential loopholes, but for now we want to remain positive, to ride this wave, so countries support the ratification and rapid entry into force.

Next steps

Although previous agreements on the sea have taken years to formally adopt, our target should be to make the Treaty enter into force at the third UN Oceans Conference in Nice, France, in June 2025. It can be done; the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted in 18 months; the Paris Agreement in under a year.

We need to keep the pressure on and the momentum up to ensure the Treaty is opened up for signature and then enters into force quickly. A lot of this comes down to equity. It’s about access to scientific data and assessments that are not skewed, and ensuring the burden for monitoring, control and surveillance does not fall unfairly on countries in the Global South. We need to think how we can use big data and AI for high seas protection, and make sure everyone has the skills to do that.

It was agreed there would be mandatory contributions from states, and there is a multilateral fund available to support ratification. But it would be great to follow the Treaty with a donor summit or donor pledge for the high seas. IUCN has been working on the idea of a Global Ocean Bank, similar to the Global Climate Fund and Global Biodiversity Fund.

We want people in each IUCN region to become ambassadors for this Treaty, to help drive it forward. So whether you are an expert on environmental impact assessment, or work on a particular specialist taskforce or species, think about how to integrate and link your work to the high seas and build capacity in that area. For those Members who work in or closely with universities, it’s about educating the next cohort of conservation or environmental experts to be equipped to protect the high seas.

IUCN has an important role to play in the interim, after the agreement but before states have set up the institutional mechanisms to implement it. We can act as intermediates for the various technical and funding structures and committees needed. Several people from the IUCN delegation co-authored a paper in Nature called Getting Beyond Yes, detailing the steps to fast-tracking implementation.

The path ahead

There are many things to figure out.

There will need to be various committees, scientific and financial, and we’ll need to assess and fill gaps in capacity. The Treaty also needs to strengthen, not undermine, other frameworks that protect the sea. This all also needs to be futureproof, and it’s difficult to anticipate what the future looks like – there will possibly be novel activities in novel ecosystems.

The main risk is that the Treaty doesn’t enter into force quickly.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the important thing is to stay positive.This is welcome news for our oceans, and a great example and model of how we work together.

mina Minna Epps, Director of IUCN Ocean