Our global ocean faces unprecedented levels of development, exploitation, pollution and impacts due to climate change, this global treaty offers a real cause for hope.

On March 4th, global negotiations concluded on the landmark Treaty of the High Seas to protect the ocean, tackle environmental degradation, fight climate change, and prevent biodiversity loss. This ‘Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) treaty, was agreed upon at the 5th Intergovernmental Conference in New York, after more than a decade of global engagement.

What is the ‘Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction’ (BBNJ) treaty all about? 

The BBNJ treaty refers to the ‘high seas’ which are parts of the ocean outside of the national jurisdictions of any nation. The high seas begin 370km from the borders of any individual nation. 

Until now there has been little-to-no oversight of the activities that are occurring on the high seas. This means that many activities such as deep-sea mining and industrial fishing that take place on the high seas are unregulated, unreported and sometimes illegal. 

This newly signed treaty will allow for the establishment of large-scale Marine Protected Areas on the high seas, areas far out to sea outside the national jurisdiction of any nation. This will greatly help the world reach our target to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. What’s more, the ocean is one of our greatest allies in mitigating the worst impacts of the climate crisis. By fully protecting large areas of the high seas we can ensure that they remain undisturbed and continue to lock away carbon from the atmosphere into the seabed. 

Some critical aspects of the treaty include assessing the impact of economic activities on high-seas biodiversity and ensuring environmental impact assessments be carried out for any activities that are to take place there. 

Threats to the ocean addressed by the ‘Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction’ (BBNJ) treaty.

Deep sea mining for example poses a significant threat to the rare and fragile ecosystems of the high seas. We have so much to learn from these ecosystems about how life can survive under such immense pressure and with a lack of light. With dedicated scientific study, there is infinite potential for new discoveries that can be made to help develop medicine, technology and our understanding of our home planet. Therefore, it is only right that the potential impact of activities carried out in the high seas are assessed using ‘Environmental Impact Assessments’ in the same way they are in parts of the ocean which do fall under national jurisdiction. This is a key step in the process of protecting our marine environment, by avoiding and mitigating these impacts and ultimately ensuring all the ways in which we use our ocean are sustainable. 

Along with ensuring the impacts of any potential new exploration and discoveries are adequately assessed, the treaty also details that access to new discoveries including Marine Genetic Resources (MGR) be share equally across the globe. This aspect of the agreement, which according to delegates and observers ‘in the room’, was a tricky but important issue which brought negotiations down to the wire. It is so important we safeguard marine biological diversity in the High Seas, but it is equally important that we do it in the right way, meaning the goods and benefits derived from the sea, including MGR, are distributed throughout the globe equally, fairly and inclusive of those countries and peoples of the world which currently have fewer opportunities or capacity to reap those benefits at this moment in time. 

Recent reports have also highlighted how illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing) is having damaging effects on the high seas and on the lives of those that work on board these distant water fleets. As well as causing harm to marine biodiversity it has been reported that human rights abuses are rife among the words IUU fishing fleets. The treaty will now allow for oversight and measures to be put in place to ensure a safe and sustainable use of the high seas by these fleets. 

How is this different from Ireland’s 30×30 targets?

In Ireland, Fair Seas is calling for the Irish government to stick to its own commitments of protecting 30% of our Exclusive Economic Zone by 2030. This refers to the waters surrounding our island that we have national jurisdiction over. New legislation is currently being written by the Irish government that will allow Ireland to designate, monitor and manage a new network of Marine Protected Areas within our own waters. A sense of hope is certainly justified when pairing the work of individual nations to designate 30% of their waters as MPAs with this new global treaty to protect large amounts of the high seas. However, hope is not enough. Management plans, monitoring and adequate funding will be essential if any benefits to society, our climate and biodiversity are to be realised. The image below shows Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the ‘Areas of Interest’ for MPA designation identified in the Fair Seas report Revitalising Our Seas. 


Ireland’s role as an EU member state in the BBNJ treaty. 

President Micheal D. Higgins in a statement issued about the treaty said:

“At a time when we are receiving the direst warnings as a result of the accelerated melting of the ice caps, the news from New York that at the United Nations an agreement has been reached overnight on a High Seas Treaty is particularly timely. It is essential that attention now swiftly moves to formal adoption of the text, to ratification and to implementation.”

President Higgins continues by saying: “Time is of the essence if the 30×30 pledge made by countries at the UN biodiversity conference in December to protect a third of the sea by 2030 can be reached. A target which must be considered a bare minimum.”

The EU and its Member States have been leading the ‘BBNJ’ High Ambition Coalition which played a key role in reaching the agreement. The coalition gathers 52 countries which are committed, at the highest political level, to achieve ambitious actions for the protection of the ocean. It was launched at the One Ocean Summit 2022 in Brest by President von der Leyen together with the French Presidency of the Council.

Richard Cronin and Carl Grainger represented Ireland at last week’s discussions in New York. Richard Cronin is the Principal Adviser on the Marine Environment at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and says: 

“We have worked with the Department of Foreign affairs since 2017 on this (BBNJ) and have been part of the EU team in the negotiations for the past 6 years. Europe (and in turn Ireland) has been the leading region regarding the ambition of the agreement and have driven the process to a large extent.”

“The boundaries between national waters and the high seas are purely administrative – ecological connectivity doesn’t stop at the border. Our forthcoming national legislation will ensure that we have effective marine protection in national waters and that this will complement international waters. In the North-East Atlantic, we have had this transboundary cooperation approach through EU and OSPAR work for over 30 years and now have 11% (1.485mkm2) of it designated as MPAs. This new global agreement will help deliver for the global ocean.”

Thank you to all those that help finalise the BBNJ treaty.

A huge thanks to all the country negotiators, delegates, NGOs and activists who over the years have met regularly to thrash out the fine details often late into the night, having to persevere through the difficult conversations to reach this momentous agreement.

Once ratified, the focus will rightly begin to fall on the implementation of this global treaty. This is where the real benefits will be realised. Ultimately, countries following through on the letter and the spirit of the treaty with genuine and ambitious action is what will allow and deliver better protection and restoration of marine biodiversity in our high seas.

Keep up to date with Fairseas and MPA news and developments, by subscribing up to our newsletter here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.

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