Protection of the High Seas | Historic agreement after years of talks

The first international treaty to protect the high seas was adopted on March 4 by member states of the United Nations. The agreement has been described as historic, at a time when the health of the oceans is threatened by global warming, plastic pollution, overfishing and seafloor exploration.


The new agreement came after more than 15 years of discussions, including 4 years of formal negotiations between UN member states. However, it must be ratified by 190 member states before it can come into force.


Photo by Patrick Herzog, Agence France-Presse Archives

An albatross soared over the sea last December, on its way to the Kerguelen Islands, sometimes called the Isles of Desolation, in the far south of the Indian Ocean.

What are the high seas? These are international waters, which begin at the borders of the exclusive economic zones of the states, i.e. 370 km from the coast. The high seas make up more than 60% of the oceans. Above all, it makes up almost half (45%) of the Earth’s surface.


About 1% of international waters are currently under preventive measures. With this new agreement, marine protected areas could be established on the high seas. Remember, the new Global Biodiversity Framework, adopted in Montreal last December, plans to protect 30% of the oceans.

climate sponge

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, around 1750, the oceans have absorbed about a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions2 Launched into the atmosphere. They’ve also absorbed nearly all of the excess heat generated by the rise in greenhouse gases, 93% over the past 40 years. In short, without the oceans, the effects of global warming would be even greater. the problem? By playing the role of climate sponges, ocean acidity is increasing and warming, profoundly modifying some marine ecosystems.

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Photo by Oliver Morin, AFP

A view of a melting glacier in Svalbard, an archipelago in northern Norway, in September 2021

If the ice in the Arctic and Antarctica reflects up to 90% of the sun’s rays, then the ocean absorbs up to 90% of it. Climate change creates a vicious circle of exponential content: warming oceans melts pack ice, and melting the latter reduces the surface area of ​​white roofs that are able to reflect the sun’s rays. The oceans then absorb more heat, accelerating the melting of ice. Are you still following?

90% (a)

According to the United Nations, nearly 90% of commercially exploited fish species are either depleted or close to being depleted.


If the terrestrial reserves of nickel are estimated at 230 million metric tons, those at the bottom of the oceans are estimated at 306 million metric tons. However, the demand for this ore is on the rise, in particular to ensure the production of electric vehicles. This is also the case for cobalt and rare earths, whose reserves are much larger underwater than those on Earth.

Eldorado mine at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean

Called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, this roughly 7,200-kilometer geological fracture has an area of ​​4.5 million square metres, nearly three times the size of Quebec. At depths of 4,000 to 5,000 meters, there are significant amounts of cobalt, rare earths, nickel, and manganese. The International Seabed Authority has issued several mining exploration permits in recent years.

Almost unknown areas

Many scientists and environmental groups call for caution regarding seabed mining exploration. In particular, they noted a lack of knowledge of these regions, which are much more difficult to explore than terrestrial environments. In these circumstances, the effects of mining activities can be underestimated, for example, due to lack of information.

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impact studies

One of the most important elements of the new agreement is that it includes the obligation to conduct environmental impact studies for the proposed activities on the high seas, in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Sources: AFP, Ocean Atlas, US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency

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