Protecting and Managing the High Seas

  • Opinion by Daud Khan, Stephen Akester (rome / london)
  • Inter Press Service

The new treaty provides a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas (MPAs) in the high seas and for a body to manage these protected areas – the target is to protect 30 percent of the seas by 2030. It will also set up systems to ensure the benefits of the genetic resources derived from the sea are “shared in a fair and equitable manner”; and will establish a Conference of the Parties that will meet periodically and members will be held to account on issues such as governance and biodiversity.

The agreement of the new treaty, the result of decades of work and lobbying, is something to celebrate. However, a review of other international laws and treaties suggests that enthusiasm needs to be tempered with realism. Commonly, developed countries, due to their superior technology and financial heft, are the biggest economic beneficiaries of open access resources such the high seas, the atmosphere and outer space. They are also the worst culprits in terms of damage caused due to pollution and overuse. Getting these benefiting countries to change behavior has proved difficult.

The case of the 1982 Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) is illustrative. Some of the provisions of Part VII of UNCLOS, which deals with the high seas, work well. For example those related to piracy - maybe because keeping shipping lanes safe is of interest to big countries with large fleets. However, the provisions related to fisheries work much less well.

Under Article 119 of UNCLOS, parties are required “to maintain or restore populations of harvested species at levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield”. The responsibility for this lies with states whose flags the fishing fleets fly (Article 117).

Notwithstanding these provisions, overfishing has continued unabated with the fleets from a handful of countries being the main culprits. There has been no effective action or sanctions to curb this, and, as a result, the proportion of fishery stocks exploited in excess of sustainable levels has continued to rise and has reached 35 percent in 2019 (

Under UNCLOS there is also a requirement for states to “cooperate to establish subregional or regional fisheries organizations”. But these too have had a patchy record of success as we pointed out in our article about Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (

Similarly the International Seabed Authority was set up to oversee and manage the exploitation of the resources on or under the seabed including oil, gas and minerals. However, there is no requirement to carry out any detailed environmental or ecological assessment; no royalties are to be paid; and no requirement for sharing of benefits with the poorer countries that lack the technologies to mine these resources.

The situation is even worse with regard to the disposal of waste in the high seas where there are virtually no regulations. This has resulted in increasing plastic and chemical pollution, much of which emanates from developed countries. Even spent fuel from nuclear power plants and radioactive water from the Fukushima power plant disaster have been dumped there.

The new treaty for the high seas aims to address many of these issues. However, it is essential that developing countries are fully involved in drafting the detailed implementation and enforcement arrangements; and defining responsibilities, as well as sanctions in the case of violation of rules and procedures. Developing countries should also continue to call into question the fact that new treaty does not cover ongoing exploitation of the high seas.

The high seas are common property of mankind and all countries need to be involved in how they are managed. The European Union has already pledged €40m to facilitate the formal ratification of the treaty and its early implementation. This will certainly give them a big say on the evolution of the detailed institutional and regulatory architecture. In order to counter this, developing countries must at least match this amount, with the larger developing countries taking in lead in provision of funding and technical skills.

Daud Khan works as consultant and advisor for various Governments and international agencies. He has degrees in Economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan.

Stephen Akester is an independent fisheries specialist working in Indian Ocean coastal countries for past 40 years.

IPS UN Bureau

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