World’s first legally binding treaty to protect the high seas: Landmark UN negotiations open | Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) Skip to content Skip to navigation
4 September 2018

New York. Treaty negotiations to conserve and protect nearly two thirds of the ocean open today at the United Nations (UN) in what is widely regarded as the greatest opportunity in a generation to turn the tide on ocean degradation and biodiversity loss.

Following over a decade of discussions at the UN, the two-week Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is the first of a series of four negotiating sessions through 2020 for a new legally-binding treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction*, commonly known as the high seas. The ocean beyond 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from a country’s shorelines is considered international waters – “the high seas” - and is globally shared. There is no overarching law in place to safeguard its biodiversity or its vital role in provisioning services – such as generating oxygen and regulating the climate.

“The high seas cover half our planet and are vital to the functioning of the whole ocean and all life on Earth. The current high seas governance system is weak, fragmented and unfit to address the threats we now face in the 21st century from climate change, illegal and overfishing, plastics pollution and habitat loss. This is an historic opportunity to protect the biodiversity and functions of the high seas through legally binding commitments” said Peggy Kalas, Coordinator of the High Seas Alliance, a partnership of 40+ non-governmental organisations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

The ocean’s key role in mitigating climate change, which includes absorbing 90% of the extra heat and 26% of the excess carbon dioxide created by human sources, has had a devastating effect on the ocean itself. Managing the multitude of other anthropogenic stressors exerted on it will increase its resilience to climate change and ocean acidification and protect unique marine ecosystems, many of which are still unexplored and undiscovered.  Because these are international waters, the conservation measures needed can only be put into place via a global treaty. 

Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University who has provided evidence to inform the UN process towards a treaty said: “The half of our planet which is high seas is protecting terrestrial life from the worst impacts of climate change. Yet we do too little to safeguard that or to protect the life within the ocean which is intrinsic to our collective survival. Protecting the biodiversity of the high seas by bringing good governance and law to the whole ocean is the single most important thing we can do to turn the tide for the blue heart of our planet.”

Through the UN, states will discuss how to protect and conserve the high seas by establishing:

  • Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): MPAs are widely acknowledged as essential for building ocean resilience, but without a treaty there is no mechanism to enable their creation on the high seas.
  • Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs): Although some activities are partially regulated in some areas of the high seas, there is no legal framework for conducting EIAs to guard against potential environmental harm.
  • Benefit sharing and technological transfer: Many countries are concerned that they will not benefit from research into high seas species and will lose out on potentially vast new ocean genetic resources, such as discoveries of marine genetic resources (MGRs) that could provide new pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and other uses. The negotiations will also aim at improving mechanisms to build capacity and transfer technology in developing countries relating to the high seas.

Gladys Martínez, senior attorney of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA)’s Marine Program, said: “We’re hopeful that this intergovernmental conference will achieve important advances toward the creation of a treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity. We’re particularly pleased to see the commitment with which Latin American nations are approaching this important negotiation.”


Notes to editors:

* ‘Areas beyond national jurisdiction’ means the areas of ocean outside the EEZs and continental shelves of individual states i.e. in most cases beyond 200 nautical miles offshore. It includes, as well as the high seas, the deep sea Area as defined in Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (known as UNCLOS), which is the deep seabed beyond the continental shelves of coastal States.

For more information see

The process so far: Treaty timeline

Press contacts

Victor Quintanilla (Mexico), [email protected], +521 5570522107

Mirella von Lindenfels (at the UN during the negotiations), + 44 7717 844 352


Connect With Us