In 1982, the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea1 was adopted. It represented a substantial multilateral effort to govern the oceans by introducing a comprehensive framework about how to use the oceans, including protection of the sea, the seabed, the subsoil and the marine environment. In addition to defining ocean boundaries and creating an innovative legal regime for controlling mineral resource exploitation in deep seabed areas beyond national jurisdiction, the convention established an area named the high seas that consisted of international waters in which countries maintained the right to fish, ship and do research. However, only 1.2% of these international waters was effectively protected, leaving marine life outside protected areas exposed to the impacts of overfishing, shipping and climate change. These concerns led to the next wave of negotiations aiming to agree on new protective measures, but disagreement over funding and fishing rights held up progress2. And now, 40 years after the convention was adopted, at the UN headquarters in New York in March, 193 countries agreed on the High Seas Treaty3. This unprecedented achievement in the history of ocean governance negotiations provides a legal framework to establish marine protected areas to help achieve the 30×30 target set by the UN biodiversity conference in December 2022 — protecting 30% of the oceans by 2030. The treaty will also establish a conference of the parties to enable member states to report on progress about ocean governance and biodiversity protection. In short, this extraordinary diplomatic achievement is set to limit fishing and exploration activities as well as shipping routes to a level not seen before.

Credit: Andreas Müller / Alamy Stock Photo

Can conservationists be hopeful? A lot of work remains to be done. Country delegates have agreed not to reopen the treaty for negotiation, but a few of them have issued statements implying their likely willingness to challenge the results. If the text does not change, each member will have to go through their national ratification process, which will be tough for several of them. And implementing the treaty will not be easy. Critical aspects of the legal framework have not been resolved yet, such as who will police marine protected areas on the high seas, how disputes will be handled and how pledged financial resources will be managed4.

Despite the hurdles ahead, the treaty represents a huge milestone for ocean governance at a time of geopolitical tensions and economic difficulties globally. Protecting the oceans is no longer wishful thinking, it is now a tangible goal backed by a legal framework. It is time to make it happen.