As reported in The Guardian, a historic high seas treaty has finally been agreed by United Nations member states, after almost 20 years of discussions.

Member states had been engaged in extensive deliberations on the subject at the UN headquarters in New York - the third time in less than a year that members have attempted to finalise a deal. News of the agreement broke late on Saturday the 4th March, a full day after the two-week conference’s official deadline.

Rebecca Hubbard, director of the High Seas Alliance, said: “Following a two-week-long rollercoaster of a ride of negotiations and superhero efforts in the last 48 hours, governments reached agreement on key issues that will advance protection and better management of marine biodiversity in the high seas.”

The historic treaty will provide a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas, a crucial milestone in enforcing the UN’s 30x30 pledge to protect a third of the sea (and land) by 2030.

The European commissioner for the environment, ocean and fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said the agreement is a “crucial step forward to preserve the marine life and biodiversity that are essential for us and the generations to come”.

“It is also a proof of strengthened multilateral cooperation with our partners and a major asset to implement our COP 15 goal for 30% ocean protection. I am very proud of our outcome,” he said.

Ocean ecosystems not only produce half the oxygen humans breathe, they also represent 95% of the planet’s biosphere and are the world’s largest carbon sink. Yet a lack of cohesive governance of the high seas has left these ecosystems particularly susceptible to exploitation – until now.

It is suggested that the High Ambition Coalition – which includes the EU, US, UK and China – was instrumental in brokering the deal, while the Global South advocated that the treaty be both fair and equitable in practice, ensuring that monetary and non-monetary benefits would be shared and an initial upfront fund would be set up under the treaty.

Michael Imran Kanu, the head of the African Group and ambassador and deputy permanent representative to the UN for legal affairs of Sierra Leone, said the treaty was “robust and ambitious”. Having expressed concerns during talks over the fair and equitable sharing of benefits, Kanu also added “we really achieved amazing results”. 

One of the main issues which divided developing and developed nations was how to fairly share marine genetic resources (MGR) and the eventual profits. MGRs consist of the genetic material of deep-sea marine sponges, krill, corals, seaweeds and bacteria. These materials are gaining significant scientific and commercial attention due to their potential use in medicines and cosmetics. Other sticking points included the procedure for creating marine protected areas and the model for environmental impact studies of planned activities on the high seas.

Monica Medina, the US assistant secretary for oceans, international environment and scientific affairs, who attended the negotiations in New York, said: “We leave here with the ability to create protected areas in the high seas and achieve the ambitious goal of conserving 30% of the ocean by 2030. And the time to start is now.”