Half the Planet at Stake as High Seas Negotiations Begin

Governments at the United Nations have the opportunity to shape the future of the ocean—and the lives of all who depend on it. And we are ready to help to bring a strong treaty to fruition.

The ocean is crucial for life on earth, yet much of it lacks comprehensive environmental safeguards. Providing oxygen we breathe, food we eat, and performing important roles in planetary systems like moderating our climate, a lot is at stake when we risk the health of the ocean. Hearteningly, governments began formal negotiations this week to develop a treaty that will protect the high seas: an area the size of nearly half the planet.

Over the next several years, governments at the United Nations (UN) have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put in place environmental safeguards for the high seas, which make up two-thirds of the world’s ocean. This week’s meeting marks the beginning of the intergovernmental conference to negotiate an international legally-binding treaty.

As I wrote in December when governments adopted a resolution to convene these formal diplomatic negotiations following two years of more informal preparatory committee discussions, adopting a treaty with strong conservation safeguards is critical to begin to reverse the tides of degradation facing the ocean, which include pollution, over-exploitation, ocean acidification, and impacts from climate change.

This week’s meeting is procedural, rather than substantive, but it will set the tone and put in place guidelines for the substantive negotiations to come.

The meeting opened Monday morning with the election of Ambassador Rena Lee of Singapore as President. It’s not every day negotiations to develop a legally-binding treaty to put in place safeguards to protect nearly half the planet commence (in fact, the last intergovernmental conference on the ocean took place over 20 years ago), and so the President of the General Assembly was present and remarked on the importance of these negotiations for the ocean and the 3 billion people that rely on it for their livelihood.

While most of the substantive issues within the treaty, including rules for establishing marine protected areas and evaluating the environmental impacts of proposed activities, won’t be discussed until the substantive negotiations begin in September, guidelines will be established this week for how those negotiations are conducted, and set the tone for future negotiating sessions.

With half the planet at stake, governments at the UN have the opportunity to shape the future of the ocean, and the lives of all who depend on it. We are ready to help however we can to bring a strong treaty to fruition.