Last weekend in New York, countries agreed to the terms of an historic new treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas, the vast expanses of ocean that do not fall under any one country’s jurisdiction. The deal has been hailed as a major coup for multilateralism, and as a crucial milestone in countries’ efforts to meeting the goal, agreed by governments in December, to ensure 30 percent of the Earth’s land and sea are granted protected status by 2030.
The high seas cover some 42 percent of the Earth’s surface, are a major carbon sink, and home to vast amounts of biodiversity. But at the same time the oceans are the backdrop to globally significant economic activity, ranging from fisheries to shipping routes, as well as emerging sectors such as deep sea mining and carbon removal projects. As such, they are highly susceptible to exploitation by irresponsible companies, self-interested governments, and even criminal interests.
Unlike coastal waters which fall under national regulatory regimes, international waters are governed by a loose patchwork of poorly policed regulations splintered across various authorities. Just 1 percent of the high seas are protected, despite the ocean being so critical to the planet’s health.
The High Seas Treaty attempts to close this regulatory gap, giving countries new legal powers to create and manage a network of “ecologically representative and well-connected” marine protected areas in international waters, with sustainable development permitted where scientific evidence allows. It also creates new guardrails around exploitation of international waters, by establishing a more formal and transparent process for permitting of commercial activity in the high seas. Under the terms of the deal, companies planning activity in international waters will need to carry out an environmental impact report with the relevant state authority. The assessment must look at the cumulative impacts of the proposed activity over time and consider the protection of migratory species across their entire migratory route. It marks a significant strengthening of the current system, and essentially means there is more onus on companies operating in the high seas to prove they will not damage valuable ecosystems.
It will be several years before the treaty comes fully into force. With its wording agreed, countries must get it approved by their domestic legislatures, with 60 countries required to ratify the treaty before it can be implemented. The first Conference of the Parties (COP) summit to bring together countries that have endorsed the high seas deal is unlikely to occur for at least four or five years.
But while the deal’s proposals may not be officially enacted until the latter half of this decade, its impact may be felt far more immediately in the real economy. Forward-thinking business leaders and investors with a stake in the so-called “blue economy” would be foolish to ignore the fact a more centralized, high-ambition approach to protection of international waters is on the way.
From clean shipping technologies to ocean mapping solutions, enhanced protection of the high seas should significantly spur demand for a variety of sectors. And the pledge that richer nations must support developing nations to protect international waters through “capacity building and the development and transfer of marine technology” suggests the commercial opportunities could prove truly global. The business implications are further highlighted by the text’s obligation on countries to equitably share benefits of marine genetic resources, such as marine plants that could be used in pharmaceuticals. Clearly, there is a role for business to help developing countries reap the economic benefits of protecting and sustainably developing waters that previously seemed off-reach.
Forward-thinking business leaders and investors with a stake in the so-called ‘blue economy’ would be foolish to ignore the fact a more centralized, high-ambition approach to protection of international waters is on the way.
Simon Walmsley, marine chief adviser at WWF-UK, said the prospect of new marine protected areas should not be regarded with trepidation by the shipping, fishing and other industries set to be affected by the introduction of new protected zones or a more rigorous environmental impact assessment process.
“There’s opportunities for business in mitigation techniques, like noise and ships, vessels, bycatch [when fish or other species are caught unintentionally in fishing], remote electronic monitoring — the list the list goes on and on,” he told BusinessGreen. “I think we should look at this as an opportunity to do things better, and business can really help with that.”
Improvements to existing technologies that will help the shipping and fishing sectors adapt to meet more stringent environmental impact assessment requirements will have the knock-on effect of endearing firms to their customers and clients, Walmsley noted, citing enhancements to fishing vessel tracking technology as an example. “If you have retailers buying fish, they want to see those vessels are accountable,” he said. “They want to see where their fish is coming from. This agreement could help that. Roughly 70 percent of tuna is caught in the high seas. So, the accountability needs to be as robust in high seas as it is in countries EEZs [exclusive economic zones, which fall under domestic jurisdiction].”
The increased transparency of environmental assessment procedures in international waters could prove particularly significant for businesses. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the deal is that it demands companies and governments taking part in these exercises publish all relevant information and any finished reports through a clearing-house mechanism, where it can be scrutinized by the international community, NGOs, other regulators, clients and customers. This approach could boost the attractiveness of those fisheries, marine carbon capture firms and shipping companies that have proved they are compliant with high sustainability standards — or conversely, present a reputational and business risk to those businesses that fail to provide credible data on their impacts.
More broadly, while some industries may rail against the prospect of tighter regulations, a more robust environmental policy regime for the high seas promises to help tackle issues that present a major long term threat to some industries. For example, overfishing remains an existential threat to some fisheries, while the emerging approaches that could serve to boost the ocean’s ability to soak up carbon dioxide have little chance of commanding public confidence without a credible regulatory framework.
But despite encouraging words to assure marine industries the Treaty should prove a long term boon to their business, Walmsley had no such assurances for the controversial deep sea mining sector. “Deep sea mining shouldn’t happen anyway,” he said. “That’s our bottom line. We need a moratorium on everything until we have some data and some kind of baseline on impacts, because that level of depth and kind of uncertainty means it’s very difficult to show what the impacts are.”
He added it would be reckless to hurt under-researched ecosystems for the benefit of mining companies, when they could play a major role in pharmaceutical and sustainable fuel advancements. It is a good example of why the treaty’s proposal for the mainstreaming of environmental impact plans that take into account various different activities over time, and not just the impact of one activity in a space, is so important, he said. In theory, this approach should help prevent the rapaciousness of one particular sector undermining the broader economy.
“If you look at habitats like hydrothermal vents, seamounts that are linked with fisheries and mining licenses — they are incredibly biodiverse,” he said. “You have organisms that actually photosynthesize from the heat of the hydrothermal vent, that work physiologically on sulphur not carbon… They are not just beautiful and unique ecosystems, they could be incredibly useful.”
The treaty is notably woolly when it comes to financing of nature protection, beyond stressing that developed nations need to support their less developed counterparts to deliver on the goals of the accord. Insiders noted the vagueness is a precaution given the lack of clarity over costs at this stage. However, business can assume that they will, alongside investors, be required to foot much of the bill through targeted investment in the so-called blue economy and investments in nature protection through philanthropy, efforts to tackle the ecosystem-related risks they face, and potentially the expansion of carbon and biodiversity offset markets.
Clearly, there is a long road ahead before the Treaty jubilantly gaveled through during the weekend can be implemented. But savvy businesses can start to bring them into line anticipated policy and regulatory changes by weighing new blue economy investment opportunities and readying themselves for the increased scrutiny that will come with upgraded environmental impact requirements. More generally, those businesses really trying to prove their commitment to sustainability should think about how they can push national governments, directly or through their trade bodies, to rapidly move through the implementation process and ensure the treaty is ratified as quickly as possible. The high seas may be inherently remote, but they are set to play a critical and iconic role in the global effort to avert a climate crisis and reverse biodiversity loss. Businesses that want to play a leading role in the net zero and nature positive transition clearly have a crucial role to play in ensuring the new High Seas Treaty delivers on its considerable promise. The voyage into uncharted waters starts here.