UN High Seas Treaty: Can it save the oceans?

Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.

This week, an international agreement was finally reached after 15 years of negotiations to protect the biodiversity of the open oceans, known as the UN High Seas Treaty. This treaty has the potential to impact two-thirds of the world’s oceans in areas 230 miles or more from shore, and addresses climate impacts — such as acidification and warming — pollution and unsustainable use through establishing marine protected areas. Currently, 43% of the high seas are vulnerable to unregulated deep sea drilling, overfishing and bioprospecting, with one-third of global fisheries facing collapse. Only 1 percent of the high seas are currently protected. 

This legally binding pact stems from the 30×30 initiative that seeks to protect at least 30%  of land and 30% of ocean waters globally by 2030. This is a crucial component to address and reverse climate change. Biodiversity is a key climate stabilizer. Each species of plant, animal, fish and fungi plays a role in co-creating our planetary life support system. And an abundant, biodiverse system is better able to withstand the climate impacts already unfolding.

Marine ecosystems are responsible for producing 70% of the oxygen that we breathe.  

Oceans are also a crucial protein source for three billion people globally and support the economies of coastal regions and island nations. 

Oceans are greatly impacted, not only by overfishing and pollution, but also by climate change, and have absorbed 90% of the excess atmospheric heat and 25 percent of CO2 emissions. The increase in CO2 is causing acidification — impeding coral and shellfish development — while warming waters disrupt the marine food chain and migratory patterns, and trigger coral bleaching events. 

Although the treaty addresses pollution, a separate treaty specifically on plastic pollution is still being negotiated. This is unfortunate considering that plastic pollution makes up 80% of marine pollution and has major impacts on aquatic life — from microplastics ingested by sealife to massive ghost nets that snag passersby. Also, the treaty lacks a holistic view of the pollution problem and does not address the 415 ocean dead zones that occur annually around the globe, largely caused by industrial agricultural practices that flood coastal waters with synthetic fertilizer runoff from fields, depleting the water of oxygen and killing all sea life in the area. 

To reach the treaty’s “30 x 30” goal will require 11 million square kilometers of ocean waters to be established as MPAs each year from now until 2030. The treaty has some additional hurdles to overcome before actually becoming international law, along with the need to set mechanisms for equitably determining what areas become MPAs and how protection will be enforced. The next step is to hold a meeting to formally adopt the text, then each country must ratify the treaty through their domestic legal processes. After 60 countries have ratified the treaty domestically, within 120 days the treaty then becomes international law. 

Notably, the predecessor of this treaty — the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, signed 40 years ago establishing regulations on whaling, shipping and seabed mining — was never ratified by the United States, one of the main culprits of unsustainable use of the oceans. 

Photo: Trawlers overfishing cod. Asc1733, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Under capitalism, overfishing is the inevitable outcome of seeing the natural world as a means for profit-making rather than viewing all life as contributing to the health of the planet. Overfishing, driven by the commodification of marine life, mainly stems from the use of super trawlers and bottom trawlers that employ kilometer-wide nets and satellite data to track schools of fish. These trawlers scoop up everything in their path, including 100,000 or more bycatch — species not profitable for sale, whose dead carcasses are dumped back into the ocean. Bottom trawling is particularly destructive and accounts for 95% of ocean damage, disturbing the sensitive sea floor ecosystem, which also releases stored carbon into the atmosphere just to grab the most profitable fish. These super trawlers are largely operated by the wealthiest nations and corporations. As with all issues faced under climate change, it’s mainly the more industrialized, wealthy countries driving the crisis, while the less developed Global South suffers most. 

Through the UN High Seas Treaty, the Global South pushed for the inclusion of “common heritage” of the high seas and a greater share of the “blue economy.” This would set the requirement to sharing discoveries globally of any marine genetic resources that can be used in biotech development, such as in pharmaceuticals or other commercial products. Generally, it is only the wealthy Global North that is able to fund this type of research and development, which leaves behind the Global South from these potential benefits derived from the high seas. 

If this UN treaty is ratified and becomes international law, it will be a small step forward toward addressing the impacts of our economic system on the environment, but we need much more to overcome the challenges of climate change. We need a holistic view and systemic solutions to truly address the decline in marine life and the health of our oceans, which is tied to what happens on land. We must address the root cause of the problem — the insatiable drive for profits under capitalism that sees all life as “natural capital” to be exploited for the short term gains of the corporate owners — ruling elite. Only through long term economic planning that can only happen under socialism, where the needs of society and the planet are the priority, can we truly move to an ecologically sustainable future. 

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