By: Chad Edwards

An agreement on the High Seas Treaty, under discussion since 2004, was reached on Saturday at UN headquarters in New York. One hundred ninety-three countries have agreed to the treaty aimed at helping to protect the world’s oceans. Costal nations’ legal authority extends to 200 nautical miles off their shores, known as the “exclusive economic zone.” The treaty would not interfere in those areas but would cover two-thirds of Earth’s open oceans, considered international waters. It was a historic win that could bring 30% of the oceans under protection by the end of the decade. The Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction was presided over by Rena Lee, Singapore’s Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues and Special Envoy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Oceans provide 17% of global animal protein production. The creatures living in the sea are overfished. Oceans are the heart of our planet, covering about 3/4 of the Earth’s surface and producing about half of the oxygen in the atmosphere. The oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water. They provide half our oxygen and contain 95 percent of global wildlife. While the oceans drive weather systems and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, the bodies of water that nourish our planet are treated like dumping grounds. Because no one controls or owns the high seas, it’s been “first come, first served” for their riches. Such practices lead to the tragedy of the commons.

The treaty language agreement is a victory “for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Climate change has warmed waters around the globe melting polar ice caps, bleaching coral reefs, and intensifying hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Activists have been lobbying for years to get more regulations on the high seas because international waters go largely unregulated. More than 8% of marine species are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List,” meaning they’re threatened or endangered. Only about 1% of these areas are protected, but the treaty aims to limit fishing in particular waters, consolidate shipping lanes, and require environmental checks on deep-sea mining.

Mostly what we see in environmental matters is accountability through transparency and reporting and other measures to bring countries together to cooperate and coordinate to achieve their outcomes. Here the negotiations included dispute resolution procedures. So, there are multiple mechanisms, but other treaties currently exist. There are live sectoral agreements related to fisheries and shipping and other area-based regional treaties that apply. So, one of the significant issues was coordinating existing laws and creating a framework that could work with what already existed. The previous UN ocean treaty – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – was signed in 1982. It established “the high seas,” international waters open to fishing, shipping, and research by all nations. It also protected about 1.2% of that area from providing refuges for marine life. Since then, overfishing, climate change, dredging, and ocean mining for minerals have all severely impacted the health of the world’s oceans. In 1980, there were 4.4 billion people in the world. Today, there are 8 billion. Thankfully the United Nation’s 193 member states hammered out the treaty language. However, formally adopting the treaty is expected to take years.

My name is Chad Edwards and I am a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state, a rising 3L at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. I am interested in working on the intersection of water law and federal Indian law. I graduated from Eastern Washington University where I majored in Philosophy and minored in Native American Studies.