The High Seas Treaty is an historic win for the planet – now let’s tackle plastics in the same spirit!

Hopes for a robust Global Plastic Treaty were given a boost last week when the member states of the United Nations meeting in New York agreed an historic new treaty to protect the high seas following nearly two decades of negotiations.

The new agreement will function as an ‘implementing agreement’ under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, which governs activities outside of national jurisdictions.

Dubbed the ‘High Seas Treaty’, it will be crucial to realising the 30×30 pledge, which aims to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030. Without this new treaty, the pledges would have been destined for failure.

Many people have worked tirelessly for more than 20 years to realise this new treaty, which also puts in place global rules on the sharing of benefits to marine genetic resources (such as deep-sea marine sponges, krill, corals, seaweeds and bacteria) discovered on the high seas, which have significant scientific and commercial interest.

This issue became a flash point over the years, in particular between the Global North and Global South countries; the latter, without the technology and resources of developed countries to plunder the high seas for new products derived from undiscovered marine biodiversity, fought hard for equity in the benefits of any discoveries made.

The Herculean effort from negotiators, civil society, indigenous peoples and countless others over many years and sleepless nights cannot be overlooked as talks could have derailed at various points over the years.

Protecting 30 per cent of the world ocean by 2030 by putting in place Marine Protected Areas on the high seas is a big win for sensitive habitats and species, including whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans). Some of our most treasured, vulnerable and, in some cases, little known species such as blue whales, sperm whales and beaked whales, rely, at least in part, on the high seas for biologically important activities such as migrating and feeding.

Protection requires understanding and actively managing these ocean sanctuaries for the life that lives in them. For cetaceans, this means management of all pressures generated by human activities in the ocean, such as climate change, the production and proliferation of all forms of pollutants, cetacean hunting, fisheries bycatch, both individually and cumulatively.

Protection of the high seas is an historic victory and, in conjunction with robust conservation measures in national waters, will protect and help the recovery of sensitive species.

EIA campaigners Jacob Kean-Hammerson and Christina Dixon at the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations in Uruguay, December 2022

Protecting 30 per cent of the ocean from damaging extractive activities such as industrial fishing, deep sea mining and exploration for oil and gas is undoubtably a major win for marine biodiversity, but the ocean is still under threat – the pollution caused by the rampant overproduction and consumption of plastics is a major threat to the health of not only the oceans, but the entire planet.

In March last year, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) agreed to begin negotiations for a new legally binding global treaty aimed at ending plastic pollution; EIA campaigners were present to witness the culmination of many years of advocacy.

The resolution gave a tight timeline of five negotiating meetings over two-and-a-half years to agree the language for this new treaty and we sincerely hope that the world can take forward the commitment to multilateralism that it took to agree the High Seas Treaty into negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty as we continue to strive towards a cleaner and more equitable future.

The agreement in New York has hopefully heralded a new era of collective ambition for tackling some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges.

For the first time, we now have the chance to significantly protect the high seas. The deep oceans are one of the great global commons – they belong to all of us – and the protection and preservation of our shared heritage is a major win for humankind, which we should all take a moment to reflect on.