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The High Seas Treaty

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  • A deal on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction has been reached.
  • The treaty is key to achieving the global target of 30% marine protected areas by 2030, as agreed to at biodiversity COP15.
  • We think the pact shows solid global efforts towards biodiversity conservation; final text is pending adoption.

“The ship has reached the shore”: After years of negotiations, UN Member States have finally reached an agreement on the High Seas Treaty (HST) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), aiming to conserve the marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ, commonly called the high seas). The treaty fills the gaps in the 30-year old UNCLOS by addressing the set-up of marine protected areas (MPAs), benefit-sharing of marine genetic resources (MGRs), the transfer of marine technology, and the specifications for the environmental impact assessment of deep sea activities, such as exploration and mining, on the high seas.

Key to the 30x30 target: The high seas comprise two-thirds of the world’s ocean. To achieve the global target of protecting 30% of marine areas by 2030, at least 24% of the high seas should be designated as protected areas1. Currently, nearly 99% are unprotected or unregulated. The High Seas Treaty provides a legal mechanism to set up MPAs (despite the unspecified level of protection). For example, we think the activities of distant-water fishing fleets would be limited by MPAs, affecting fish catch and trade in some economies, e.g. mainland China (Fig. 3).

Solidifying ocean governance: Akin to the CBD (5 September 2022), a Conference of Parties (COP) to the HST will be established and will meet regularly to monitor the progress of biodiversity conservation on the high seas and the treaty implementation. As the International Seabed Authority (ISA) expects to finalise the Mining Code for the Deep Sea in July, we think international ocean governance will be stronger than ever. Countries are responsible for and authorised to manage marine areas, which would streamline and balance marine conservation and development in the future.

Job not yet complete: The text of the treaty will be formally adopted in a further intergovernmental conference at a date to be announced. The details of some sticky issues, such as modalities for the sharing of monetary benefits from the application of MGRs and area-based management tools will be decided in the later Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting. In addition to the text adoption, we think investors should look out for the discussion of the regulatory framework for deep sea mining in July. The framework should define the viability of mining on the seabed, which is rich in metals for battery manufacturing, e.g. nickel.

First published 22nd March 2023.

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