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WWF: High Seas Treaty critical to achieving 30% global ocean protection goal

© © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF
Whales © © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF

WWF is urging countries to finalize a new global agreement for the two-thirds of the ocean that is largely unprotected and overexploited, as talks over the last 15 years are anticipated to conclude in a ‘High Seas Treaty’ over the next few weeks.

The Fifth Intergovernmental Conference, or IGC5, to negotiate a legally binding agreement took place last August, but recessed on the final day due to too many issues to resolve. The meeting will resume for what organizers and ocean advocates hope will be the final talks between governments at the UN Headquarters in New York, from 20 February to 3 March 2023.

WWF believes the deal will be critical to achieving the global ocean conservation targets agreed in December by 196 countries at COP15 under the Global Biodiversity Framework. The framework commits countries to protect and conserve at least 30% of the ocean, and ensure 30% of degraded areas are under restoration by 2030. A High Seas Treaty would create a process for establishing marine protected area (MPA) networks in areas beyond national jurisdiction; critical for meeting the global targets.

“For most people, the high seas are out of sight, out of mind. But the ocean is a dynamic mosaic of habitats, and the high seas play an important role in the healthy functioning of the whole marine system. With two-thirds of the ocean falling outside national waters, a High Seas Treaty is an essential precondition for protecting 30% of marine areas worldwide,” says Pepe Clarke, Oceans Practice Leader at WWF International.

“We have a chance to achieve a global, legally binding agreement that would address the current gaps in international ocean governance. We’re optimistic the COP15 biodiversity agreement will provide the shot in the arm needed for governments to get this important agreement over the line,” adds Clarke.

The waters beyond national jurisdiction, known as the high seas, comprise nearly two-thirds of the ocean’s area, but only roughly 1% of this huge swathe of the planet is protected, and even then often with little effective management in place. The high seas play a key role for many important species of sharks, tuna, whales and sea turtles, and support billions of dollars annually in economic activity. 

WWF welcomes the substantial progress made at the negotiations in August, and urges parties to be ambitious when finalizing five key elements*. These include: committing to enhanced cooperation opportunities; designing a practical process to establish MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction, overseen by a Conference of the Parties; mandating environmental impact assessments proportionate to likely impacts; pledging additional resources from developed nations including financial, scientific and technological, as well as a dispute resolution mechanism with a distinct compliance committee to detect and settle breaches. 

“Overfishing and illegal fishing, habitat destruction, plastic and noise pollution as well as climate change impacts are all rife in the high seas. Heavily subsidized, industrial fishers seek to exploit and profit from ocean resources that, by law, belong to everyone. It’s a tragedy of the commons,” says Jessica Battle, Senior Global Ocean Governance and Policy Expert, who is leading WWF’s team at the negotiations.

“A legally binding High Seas Treaty would help to break down the current silos between isolated management bodies, and result in less cumulative impacts and better cooperation across the ocean – it would create a forum where all ocean issues can be discussed as a whole. The high seas, the wildlife that migrates through these waters, and the climate-regulation functions of the ocean need urgent protection from both current and new threats, such as deep sea mining,” explains Battle. 

The high seas support crucial fisheries, provide habitats for hundreds of thousands of species and mitigate climate change impacts, with 23% of human-related carbon emissions being absorbed by the ocean over the last 10 years. While this slows global warming it also leads to acidification, which has disastrous consequences for marine ecosystems. Already, 25% of known species in the high seas are threatened with extinction.



*WWF’s five core issues to be resolved in the negotiations:

Enhanced cooperation

Commit to enhanced cooperation opportunities. The treaty will provide better cooperation between states and sectoral governance bodies, such as RFMOs (Regional Fisheries Management Organizations) and the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) to deliver on the expectations and obligations to protect biodiversity.

Marine Protected Areas

Design a process to establish and manage MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), implemented by a Conference of the Parties and clear rules on how they will be designated.

Environmental Impact Assessments

All activities should be subject to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) process proportionate to likely impacts.

Scientific, financial and technological resources

Developed countries should commit to contribute financial, scientific and technological resources to effectively implement the treaty, and increase capacity-building and technology transfer.

Dispute resolution mechanism

A dispute resolution mechanism should be established and led by an Implementation and Compliance Committee, to help settle breaches.

Read our latest policy guide on the BBNJ for policymakers and governments here.

About WWF
WWF is an independent conservation organization, with over 30 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the Earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit for the latest news and media resources and follow us on Twitter @WWF_media.

Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ Agreement) or ‘High Seas Treaty’
The Fifth Intergovernmental Conference on a global legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ Agreement) is taking place in the UN Headquarters in New York from 20 February to 3 March 2023. 

UNCLOS is one of the world’s most widely ratified treaties with 168 Parties to the Convention, entering into force in 1994. The final treaty will be the third “implementing agreement” under UNCLOS, and focused on four areas: marine genetic resources, area-based management tools including marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, and capacity building and transfer of marine technology. 

Since 2018, States from around the world have so far gathered at the UN for five two-week negotiating sessions. The negotiations were postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fifth and supposedly final session took place in August 2022, but as no agreement was reached it was suspended until February 2023.

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