News | 29 March 2023

Joaquim Garrabou: "The High Seas Treaty offers an excellent framework to address the challenges of conservation and sustainable use of the high seas"


In this March's "In Depth" we talk to researcher Joaquim Garrabou about the recently reached UN High Seas Treaty.

Currently, only 2% of "high seas" areas are protected/Joaquim Garrabou (ICM-CSIC).
Currently, only 2% of "high seas" areas are protected/Joaquim Garrabou (ICM-CSIC).

The High Seas Treaty is a historic UN agreement reached a few weeks ago by almost 200 countries after 20 years of negotiations and will serve, among other things, as an instrument to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. In this interview we discuss the details of the document with one of our researchers, Joaquim Garrabou, an expert in marine conservation, marine protected areas and climate change. For him, given their size and role in the functioning of the ocean, these areas are key to stop the biodiversity loss and the climate emergency.

1. What is the High Seas Treaty?

It is an agreement that seeks to promote the creation of marine protected areas in the high seas, share the benefits of the genetic resources -genes found in marine species that can have medical and biotechnological applications- of these habitats, and assess the environmental impact of new large-scale operations, both commercial and scientific -such as climate intervention experiments- that affect these areas. In addition, the treaty offers an excellent opportunity for research, as it strengthens the role of science in decision-making, also in countries with fewer economic resources, through training and international cooperation.

2. What is the "high seas" zone?

These are those parts of the ocean that extend beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the territorial waters -usually 200 nautical miles-. They represent approximately two-thirds (64%) of the total ocean surface and almost half of the Earth's surface (45%). They are therefore key for understanding the ocean's role in climate regulation and the functioning of the biosphere.

3. Why is this referred to as a "landmark treaty"?

Because it is a document that delegates from the various signatory countries have been discussing for almost 20 years. The negotiations have been very complex due to the current context of environmental emergency, the overlapping of interests between the exploitation of common resources -fishing, genetic resources, mineral resources- and geopolitical relations -between the countries of the North and those of the global South, with far fewer resources-.

4. Is it really an ambitious treaty?

The treaty provides an excellent framework for addressing the challenges of conservation and sustainable use of the high seas area. Protecting 30% of this area by 2030 is in itself a very ambitious and complex goal, as it must take into account existing governance mechanisms for sharing benefits from the exploitation of genetic resources, among others. In addition, it will be necessary to coordinate with other bodies that regulate activities in the ocean, such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is responsible for granting licenses for mineral exploration of the ocean floor. For all these reasons, implementing the agreement will not be easy, although the framework it provides is key to achieving the objectives set.

5. What do you miss in the document?

As with most international agreements, the main challenge is to figure out how to effectively implement the actions defined. Apart from the inherent complexity of these multilateral agreements, in this treaty we must add that operations on the high seas require a series of resources and complex logistics, for example, to carry out exploration campaigns. For this reason, providing the countries and actors involved with the necessary operational tools to enforce the agreements will be key for ensuring the success of the treaty.

6. Why is it important to specifically protect 30% of the ocean?

According to various studies, if 30% of the ocean is protected by 2030, the loss of biodiversity could be halted, thus contributing to the fight against the climate emergency. In this context, at the end of 2022, the last meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. Previously, both the European Union through the Green Deal, and the Mediterranean region through the Barcelona Convention, had already agreed to protect at least 30% of their seas by 2030.

7. Where are we now?

Currently, the total protected area of the ocean is 8%, but in the case of international waters, which are the subject of the High Seas Treaty, this number does not reach 2%. Therefore, if we really want to achieve this 30% of protection, it will be necessary for the international community to focus all its efforts on this.

8. What role do marine reserves play in maintaining the ocean’s health?

Marine protected areas are zones where regulations, reductions and even the prohibition of activities such as fishing are established to reduce the impact of the anthropogenic footprint. In this sense, several studies have proven the capacity of these areas -provided they are well managed- to recover and conserve marine biodiversity. That is why we say that they are a basic pillar for the ocean’s health.

9. Which characteristics should a "good" marine reserve have?

A good marine protected area should define ambitious conservation objectives. In this sense, those that give the best results are those in which human activities are more restricted, also known as "integral zones" or "No take - No entry". In any case, whatever the typology of marine protected areas, it is essential to provide them with the resources -personnel, equipment, legal and financial context- to implement management plans as efficiently and effectively as possible.

10. How does Catalonia compare with Europe and the rest of the world?

Catalonia has a network of protected areas along its coastline. However, the strictly protected areas (integral areas) are clearly insufficient, representing less than 0.01% of the total. In addition, most of this protected areas do not have management plans defined, and even less implemented. There is still a lot of work to be done!