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Taming the ‘Wild West’

The ocean is often not given the full breadth of credit it deserves for keeping us and our planet alive. The large bodies of water that make up two-thirds of the earth's surface provide immeasurable ecological, economic, social and food security benefits to humanity. Despite the vast importance the ocean holds in human survival, much of it remains unprotected and open to exploitation. This is because international law gives individual countries national jurisdiction overseas 200 miles off their coasts, leaving 61% of our oceans unprotected. As a result, these vast unregulated waters have been labelled the ‘Wild West’ in which laws are void and the human race’s most precious resources are left bare to destruction.


Early in March of this year, 2023, the UN attempted to tame the ‘Wild West’ by passing the Treaty of the High Seas. This recent multilateral treaty consists of 75 articles that aim at protecting, caring for and ensuring the responsible use of marine ecosystems, as well as conserving the inherent value of marine biological diversity. In an age where pressures on the world’s oceans have never been higher, this treaty is crucial for the UN to meet its 2030 global biodiversity agreement. The treaty is a groundbreaking step in international environmental law towards a brighter future in which oceans and the extensive habitats beneath them are under lawful protection. Rebecca Hubbard, the director of the High Seas Alliance consortium of nongovernmental organisations, stated in an interview with the Washington Post that the treaty is “absolutely world-changing,” as international law now has the power to “protect and manage marine life in the ocean beyond countries’ jurisdiction.” In the EU press release about the High Seas Treaty, Virginijus Sinkevicius, the commissioner for environmental Oceans and Fisheries announced that this was “a historic moment for our oceans.” He noted that this UN agreement was a “crucial step forward to preserve marine life and biodiversity for us and the generations to come”.


It is crucial to outline how this treaty will work in pursuing its objectives. This is tricky and will take many decades to perfect, but essentially the treaty has created a mechanism for nations to begin designating new marine protection areas in international waters. This is the first time international law has provided countries the ability to create these marine protection zones and is vital for enforcing promises the UN made last year at the COP15 summit. At this summit, delegates pledged to protect at least 30% of Earth’s land and oceans by 2030. Thus, marine protection areas will provide countries and multilateral groups with the ability to enforce protection for vulnerable marine ecosystems, as well as for the millions of organisms that inhabit them. Additionally, the treaty stipulates that environmental impact assessments must be completed before any new exploitation of marine resources in the ‘Wild West.’ This will further bring our international environmental laws into a more modern age in which they are used to support Earth’s survival.


Along with the provisions mentioned above, the treaty brings forth another first in the world of international environmental law. This treaty will require assessments that concern the impact of economic activities on high-seas biodiversity. More specifically, these assessments will include a baseline assessment of the marine environment likely to be affected by proposed economic activity along with possible impacts and potential prevention, mitigation and management measures. The data that results from these assessments will be crucial in how the UN executes meeting its vision for the treaty. The UN must measure economic activities on the high seas because with greater globalisation–and greater economic activity–has come a greater risk to biodiversity. For example, global trade leads to more ships that can strike whales and other animals near the surface, along with a greater need for minerals found on the seafloor. This has driven companies to look towards the ‘wild est,’ where they could freely mine and exploit resources with little backlash or regulations. Thus this subsection of the treaty is crucial in addressing modern-age tensions and shutting down future exploitation of our oceans.


Moreover, the High Seas treaty brings forth provisions about the equitable sharing of knowledge, technologies and benefits from marine genetic resources. This provides a solution to the long-standing tensions resulting from the division of profits from deep-sea scientific discoveries. This became a contention point between developed and developing countries during the negotiations of the High Seas Treaty. Liz Karan, director of ocean governance at the Pew Charitable Trusts offered insights into this contention stating that “developing countries typically don’t have the technology, the access and the resources to do research in the high seas”. Thus, the UN is currently battling the question of how to regulate the ‘Wild West’ in such a way that developing countries benefit from these laws and resources as much as developed countries would. To advance the treaty’s progression, developed nations ultimately agreed to share some of their profits with developing ones, while also establishing frameworks for all nations to coordinate an environmental impact assessment to share marine genetic resources. The agreement’s acceptance that genetic resources on the high seas must benefit all of humanity is groundbreaking because it establishes a framework for the sharing of resources on the high seas. This further reigns in the ‘Wild West’ as oceanic habitats and creatures are now under a degree of protection of which they never had before. Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries has also stated that "It is proof of “strengthened multilateral cooperation with our partners and a major asset to implement our COP 15 goal”. Therefore, provisions surrounding scientific research and knowledge not only protect against environmental exploitation, but strengthen ties between developing and developed countries within the UN.


Finally, despite the treaty’s groundbreaking legislation and nature, it faces many challenges and holds some deficiencies. The main challenge facing the treaty is the question of enforcement. In order to be effective, the treaty must be ratified in the national parliaments of at least 60 countries. Thus, it is expected to take years for the treaty to come into force. The United States is yet to formally adopt the measures, and is notorious for being slow in ratifying environmental treaties, let alone accepting them. Hence enforcement remains an uphill battle for environmental groups and politicians. Additionally, the treaty neglects to acknowledge or include emerging resources and areas near the Arctic. As the planet warms, the Arctic’s permanent ice covering is melting. This has resulted in greater areas of the ocean becoming vulnerable to mining and shipping exploitation. For instance, China is planning a shipping route through the Central Arctic Ocean which could become a regular passageway between Asia and Europe. These new seas remain unprotected and open to unrestricted shipping lanes, despite the existence and laws of the High Seas Treaty. Moreover, mining companies in the Pacific that explore the deep sea beds for metals will not face scrutiny under the treaty. This is because the treaty’s provisions do not overrule regulations placed by authorities that oversee present high seas activities. Military activities and existing fishing and commercial shipping are also exempt from the treaty. Consequently this leaves portions of the ‘Wild West’ open to exploitation which began prior to the passing of the treaty. In turn precocious resources, such as metals found in the deep seas of the Pacific mentioned above, continue to be exploited with little regulation. Despite these challenges and deficiencies, the High Seas treaty is a triumph for the future of environmental law, oceanic survival, and our entire planet.


The High Seas Treaty is quickly proving to be the first international legislation aiming to reign in the ‘Wild West’. It brings forth new hope in the fight against climate change and environmental destruction. Provisions in the treaty provide multilateral groups the ability to conduct impact assessments on economic activities on the high seas. Additionally, articles provide mechanisms for the creation of marine protection areas in international waters. The treaty also publicly strengthens ties between developed and developing countries in the fight against climate change pertaining to scientific knowledge and discovery on the high seas. Overall, the treaty faces an uphill battle regarding its enforcement and in protecting oceanic landscapes, but it is a crucial multilateral action in fighting climate change.



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