Skip to content

Conserving biologically diverse areas beyond national boundaries

10 March 2023
ICS Policy Manager (Legal) Emily Rowley, who has been representing shipping at Intergovernmental Conference for over five years, was present. Credit: IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis.

Nearly 200 nation states at the United Nations in New York have agreed final draft text for a treaty to protect high seas marine life. While yet to be formally adopted, the agreement concludes nearly two decades of work and ten years of discussions on the subject. The agreement forms the substance of an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention under the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ agreement). 

The new treaty addresses four main elements of ocean governance: marine genetic resources, including questions on the sharing of benefits; measures such as area-based management tools, including Marine Protected Areas (MPA); environmental impact assessments; capacity building and the transfer of marine technology. 

Notably, the treaty sets out a process to enable the establishment of cross-sectoral MPAs and other area-based management tools in the high seas and the underlying seabed. Currently with just over 1% of the high seas region protected, the BBNJ will be a key tool in delivering agreed upon targets of 30% global MPAs as decided in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework in December 2022 at COP15.

Liz Karan, Director of Pew’s Ocean Governance Project, said, “The effective implementation of this landmark treaty is the only pathway to safeguard high seas biodiversity for generations to come and provides a pathway for nations to fulfil the 30 by 30 target. Governments and civil society must now ensure that the agreement is adopted and rapidly enters into force.”

The agreement takes account of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) role and the measures that emerge from it will complement existing regulations, with the detail of any measures that may be needed for ships to be ultimately discussed and decided by the IMO. 

“For international shipping, the matters which the convention is designed to address are within the remit of the IMO,” explained ICS Policy Manager (Legal) Emily Rowley, who has been representing shipping at Intergovernmental Conference for over five years. “The agreement is intended to cover gaps in ocean governance and will help ensure that emerging high seas industries will be as well-regulated as shipping is by IMO. The agreement is also intended to enhance cooperation and coordination between UN agencies and other global and regional regulators of activities on the high seas, promoting a holistic approach to the protection of marine biodiversity and ecosystems areas where no one State is responsible for preserving them.”

The International Chamber of Shipping has welcomed this landmark agreement, having actively participated in talks on the BBNJ since 2016. This has allowed them to ensure that the international shipping community is engaged and represented at UN negotiations, and to reiterate the important role of the International Maritime Organization as shipping’s global regulator.