The UN High Seas Treaty (BBNJ)

The United Nations High Seas Treaty, also known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty

High seas, or waters beyond national jurisdiction, represent two thirds of the ocean. They are one of the most valuable sources of benefits for our society both at ecological and socio-economic levels, but they are also subjected to high pressure from overexploitation, pollution and climate change resulting in biodiversity loss.

These waters beyond national jurisdiction are currently regulated by different international agreements, such as regional fisheries management organisations. The remaining third of the ocean is composed by territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones. These waters are regulated by the different sovereigns states under which they fall and subject to national laws.

Since ocean governance mostly focused on waters under national jurisdiction, there has been a lack of coordination between countries which led to an ineffective implementation of international agreements, in a realm that knows no boundaries. The result is that, often, the waters beyond national jurisdiction are left unregulated and national efforts to stop the increasing decline in marine biodiversity and ecosystems degradation have proved to be insufficient.

Negotiations to develop a legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction started two decades ago. On the 4th of March 2023, after a long process of negotiations, the text of the High Seas Treaty was finally agreed upon at the 5th Intergovernmental Conference in New York and on the 19th of June it was adopted.

The Highs Seas treaty, also known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty (BBNJ), is a legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It aims to establish that missing cohesive framework to protect the ocean, tackle environmental degradation, fight climate change, and prevent biodiversity loss.

It focusses on 4 areas:

  • Marine genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits
  • Area-based management tools which includes Marine Protected Areas
  • Environmental Impact Assessments
  • Capacity building and the sharing of marine technology

The treaty will create a process for the establishment of large-scale marine protected areas on the high seas, a key measure to meet the commitment of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Agreement. However, there are concerns for the implementation as the language in the text still allows fishing within future MPAs.

In order for the treaty to come into effect, a minimum of 60 member states need to ratify it. A process which previously took 12 years for UNCLOS.

You can find more information on the High Seas Treaty here.