"The ship has reached the shore", this was the phrase with which Rena Lee announced last Sunday, 4th March (CET - Vigo), in New York, the agreement reached on the so-called High Seas Treaty.

Lee is the president of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, the body which built this Treaty that seeks to be an effective, clear and coordinated instrument for the effective protection of the "high seas", the marine surface outside the national waters of each State that represents more than 66% of the ocean (and 46% of the total surface of the globe).

More than two decades of intense discussions between organizations of experts, environmentalists and governments were necessary to achieve this document that aims to update the governance and protection of this vast region of our planet; practically defenseless, until now, against the new technologies, such as Deep Sea Mining, that allow the exploitation of new resources.

At the IIM we spoke with some of our researchers about the relevance of this new agreement and the changes it may bring to the exploitation and protection of the ocean.

A vitally important agreement for the ocean

Of the people consulted, they all agree to emphasize the relevance of the Agreement. Antonio Padín, researcher in the Oceanic Processes in Global Change group, defines it, in fact, as a "firm commitment to the protection of the health of the oceans".

"The agreement is of vital importance for the protection of the waters that belong to everyone and to no one, the High Seas." - says David Villegas, researcher in Marine Ecology and Resources - "Until now, each country did more or less what it wanted. This agreement aims to bring some order and a legal framework to regulate activities in this area of the ocean."

However, caution is also a predominant attitude among our researchers, as indicated by María López Acosta, researcher in Oceanic Processes and member of OYSTER, the group of young researchers of the European network EuroMarine: "This treaty is a historic milestone that lays the foundations of what the oceans of the future should be: more sustainable and with a greater degree of protection. Now we have to wait to see how the signatory countries of the treaty incorporate it into their national legislations and how it is implemented, for which we will possibly have to wait several more years."

Moving towards the 30x30

One of the most relevant points of the Agreement is that it acts as a necessary step to achieve what is known as the 30x30 goal set by the UN: the protection of 30% of the marine surface in 2030 through the declaration of Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs).

Given the complicated legal framework existing until now, most of these areas were in national waters, while international waters were practically unprotected with only 1% of their surface within one of these MPAs.

David Villegas, while recognising the importance of the Treaty to move towards this type of protection of marine ecosystems, again asks for caution: "The problem with the goal of protecting 30% by 2030 is that the result will depend a lot on the type of protection that is implemented".

Thus, he explains how, while there are areas with a great protection of resources (in which their extraction is not allowed, for example), there are many others in which protection remains, basically, "on paper". In addition, he warns: "The interested sectors will probably press for the protection to be merely symbolic".

Impact on exploitation activities and fishing

Another interesting point of the Treaty, which will undoubtedly affect the exploitation of the resources of the open sea, is the new requirement of Environmental Impact Studies for the deployment of any exploitation activity in the high seas.

Rgarding the effect it may have on exploitation activities in this region of the ocean, María López is clear: the new agreement "will affect the exploitation of marine resources in the open sea". In addition, it indicates that "it should help to avoid the abusive exploitation of certain resources that have a high environmental impact and that, until now, have had little control."

Regarding fishing resources, the Treaty will not significantly affect their exploitation, according to David Villegas. "Fishing regulation in many areas of the High Seas was already being regulated by the so-called RFMOs - Regional Fisheries Management Organizations - supranational organizations that regulate extractive activities in a certain area, although with this new legal framework the RFMOs will have more tools to do their job well in terms of advice and protection of biological resources”.

"In my opinion, therefore, the biggest impact would not be on fishing regulation, but on other resource extractive activities such as energy or mining activities, or even the laying of underwater cables, which will have to undergo new Environmental Impact Studies" - adds Villegas.

One novelty: the regulation of "genetic resources"

An innovative aspect of this agreement, attempts to introduce new regulation on a resource that has so far been largely ignored by international law: genetic resources. These resources cover all the genetic biodiversity found in a given area, that is to say, the different species and individuals, which can be of very particular interest for exploitation by industries such as pharmaceuticals.

María López highlights this new addition: "For the first time, marine genetic resources are discussed and it is established that those located in the high seas are 'property' of the international community. Thus, countries with a higher technological development or large private companies cannot become sole owners of them"

However, the vagueness of the Treaty in this respect, once again brings out caution among the research professionals: "We will have to see how these indications are transferred to national legislation, the Treaty does not specify the mechanisms by which it must be implemented".

In short, the sources consulted at our Institute show quite a lot of excitement at a decisive step in the protection of the oceans, framed within this Decade of Ocean Sciences marked by the UN until the year 2030. However, we will have to let some time pass to see how its measures, achieved after years of negotiation, are transferred into national legislation and to find out how much power they really have to conserve and protect marine ecosystems and their resources.