Power Marketplace’s public service journalism 💙 Give Now

A new UN treaty looks to govern maritime resources on the high seas

Sabri Ben-Achour and Jarrett Dang Mar 24, 2023
Heard on:
Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images

A new UN treaty looks to govern maritime resources on the high seas

Sabri Ben-Achour and Jarrett Dang Mar 24, 2023
Heard on:
Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, after 10 years of negotiating, countries at the United Nations hammered out a new treaty that has the potential to significantly change how the world’s oceans are governed.

The agreement — called the “High Seas Treaty” — deals with the thorny issue of what happens in so-called international waters, which make up the vast majority of oceans. These areas belong to no nation and have received essentially no protection under international law until now. Along with environmental protections, the treaty also sets out new economic rules that will govern how resources from the high seas can be used — and how profits must be shared between countries.

The treaty now needs to be finalized and ratified by at least 60 countries to go into effect. According to David Bosco, a professor of international studies at Indiana University Bloomington and author of “The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans,” the agreement represents a sea change in how large parts of the ocean will be regulated.

“One of the big innovations of the treaty is to try to create a mechanism at the international level for creating what’s called marine protected areas,” Bosco said in an interview with Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour. “So these would be areas that are restricted in terms of both fishing [and] all sorts of other activities … Now, you’re going to have a kind of centralized mechanism and process.”

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: You know, one question I have is: is there currently agreement on where the high seas start? I ask because I know there have been disputes, for example, with China about where a country’s exclusive economic zones start and where the high seas begin.

David Bosco: Yeah. So there is general agreement that if you go beyond 200 miles from the coast, then you are then on the high seas. There’s a lot of disagreement about what are the boundaries between countries, different maritime zones, and there are a lot of different disputes about what you can do within different maritime zones. But there is general agreement that beyond 200 miles is the high seas.

Ben-Achour: So how are those high seas currently governed? Like, what are the rules? If I’m a fisherman, for example, is it just like open season?

Bosco: Yeah, so there’s kind of two competing concepts out there. One is that, you know, the High Seas is kind of a free-for-all, and it’s basically a zone of freedom. But there’s been changes in that over the past decades, and an understanding that that’s not really workable. And so, for example, for fishing vessels, in some parts of the high seas, there are international agreements about what kind of fishing you can do in that area, and how much fish you can catch. And so if your country belongs to one of those agreements, you may be regulated in terms of what you’re doing on the high seas.

Ben-Achour: So if the idea is to bring some kind of order to the high seas, one key aspect of this framework is around resources, both protecting them and exploiting them. When it comes to using resources in the high seas, what are the new rules? What would they be?

Bosco: So the new rules are that if you’re going to take, say, marine genetic resources, some kind of genetic resource from something that you found on the high seas — some kind of marine organism — that there has to be some kind of sharing of that with the international community. How exactly you share it is very much left vague in the new agreement. But ideally, you need to kind of register what you’ve done on the high seas. And there should be some kind of profit-sharing mechanism if you make money off of that high seas genetic material.

Ben-Achour: When we’re talking about marine genetic resources, what does that mean?

Bosco: So it’s essentially a genetic resource from some kind of marine organism. So to give you an example, there’re some sea sponges, for example, there were kind of genetic sequences in there that were used to develop anti-leukemia drugs. So I think that’s the kind of thing that the agreement has in mind, that there’s some genetic sequencing or some organic resource from the oceans that is then used to be commercialized, probably into some kind of pharmaceutical but potentially into other uses.

Ben-Achour: How common is the use of marine genetic resources, though?

Bosco: It happens, it has happened in the past. And there’s a lot of hope that it could be used more frequently going forward. One question for companies involved in this area is if there’s going to be all these new regulations about the use of genetic resources from the high seas, couldn’t we find that same genetic resource, potentially, within a country’s exclusive economic zone? Right, so if you only go out to 200 miles, you’re in a country’s exclusive economic zone. And that coastal country has control of those economic resources and any use of that ocean space for commercial purposes. And so I think one thing, if you are a pharmaceutical company interested in marine genetic resources, the question is whether there’s going to be some genetic resources that are only found on the high seas and not found within countries’ exclusive economic zones.

Ben-Achour: Is there a risk that no one’s gonna want to explore that if they have to share the profits?

Bosco: Yeah, this is a point that some of the developed economies have made in these negotiations, is that we need to keep incentives — economic incentives — strong enough for companies to want to invest in this. And so this is something that’s going to be worked out: how do you keep that balance between keeping commercial incentives? Because often there will be a lot of investment involved. It’s not just a harvesting of the genetic resource, it’s then money that you’ve got to pour into figuring out how it can be used, how it can be commercialized. And if there’s too much of a profit sharing or too much of a cost of that, some companies may decide it’s just not worth the effort. There’s a lot of similarities here to the issue of seabed mining, the idea of pulling minerals — nickel, cobalt, etc — off of the ocean floor. And it’s very similar in terms of these questions about profit sharing and how proceeds from that kind of activity should be shared with the international community.

Ben-Achour: What other potential economic implications would you see coming out of this treaty?

Bosco: Well, I think the point about how this is going to impact commercial incentives is going to be a huge question and something that companies, pharmaceutical companies in particular, are going to be paying close attention to. The other area, though, has to do with, for example, shipping and shipping costs. And here, you get into the question of environmental impact statements because that’s another area covered by the treaty, where countries may have to file environmental impact statements or assessments if they’re doing activities on the high seas. So there could be some implications for shipping. Any kind of marine research, I would say, is something that could be affected by this new agreement.

Ben-Achour: Well, that speaks directly to environmental protection, right? So that was a big ambition in this treaty, what kind of provisions are in there to, you know, protect marine species, the marine environment?

Bosco: One of the big innovations of the treaty is to try to create a mechanism at the international level, for creating what’s called marine protected areas. So these would be areas that are restricted in terms of both fishing but all sorts of other activities. There have been a few experiments with creating marine protected areas on the high seas already. But it’s just been done kind of ad hoc by groups of countries who get together and decide we want to protect this particularly sensitive area. Now, you’re going to have a kind of centralized mechanism and process. And the ambition is that we get more and more of the high seas declared to be marine protected areas where there are special regulations that apply to activities.

Ben-Achour: The oceans are so vast, do you think that even if this agreement is ratified, it can be enforced out there?

Bosco: Yeah, the enforcement is a big question when it comes to really any kind of international agreement, but particularly one like this. You’ve got to have countries that are willing to invest resources into monitoring compliance. And that means coast guards, that means potentially navies that are willing to get involved in this. That is something that very much remains to be worked out.

Ben-Achour: This treaty took a long time and a lot of work to produce. Out of everything in there, what do you think the most impactful thing will be?

Bosco: The idea that countries need to proactively think about the environmental impact of what they do on the high seas, that it’s no longer the norm that you kind of do what you want on the high seas. That norm had already been breaking down. But I think this agreement is giving it a real push to say that you have to proactively think about the environmental impact, be it through the creation of these marine protected areas or environmental impact assessments. I think that’s going to be the lasting impact of this agreement.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.  

This is NOT a paywall. 

Marketplace is community-funded public service journalism. Give in any amount that works for you – what matters is that you give today.