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An explainer on the High Seas Treaty

In today’s Finshots, we explain why the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty or what’s informally known as the High Seas Treaty is a massive win for the earth’s oceans.

Also, before we start today's story, a quick sidenote from team Ditto. If you're someone who has prior experience in a customer facing role and are really proficient in Microsoft Excel, Ditto is looking to hire an Operations Analyst.

The Story

Every country has complete control over their land. And also, the waters surrounding the land. But once they step across this boundary, things change. We enter what’s known as the high seas. And this part of the ocean doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of any country.

Now if you want the technical definition — the first 12 nautical miles of the sea beyond the land boundaries of a country are considered its territorial waters. Then we have 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zones. And the riches of the sea in this zone are also owned by the country in question.

Beyond that, you find no man’s land. Or water. And nearly 65% of the earth’s oceans fall into this bucket.

Now, we’re not saying that there aren’t any rules on the high seas. It’s not absolute anarchy. We have the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that came into force in 1994. And a bunch of other stuff such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA). Together, they try to regulate how countries and companies can fish and explore for minerals on the high seas.

But let’s just say that it hasn’t stopped us from mucking up the ocean.

We’ve overfished. We’ve mined for oil and minerals with reckless abandon. We’ve made the oceans 30% more acidic over the past 200 years. And all this has destroyed our delicate marine life. For instance, mussels are struggling to make strong shells because of the acidity in the water. Beautiful coral reefs are dying thanks to increased acidity. And 10% of all marine species are at risk of extinction. We are destroying our pristine oceans.

Now we know about the damage we’re causing. But the economic potential of the vast ocean was also alluring. Everyone wanted to exploit it. And then humans discovered something else — marine genetic resources (MGR).

If you’re wondering what on earth that is, well, think about all the organisms in the deep blue sea. We’re not just talking about plants, fish and mammals. But even microbes. The ocean is a vast untapped genetic pool of resources. And this pool is being used in a whole host of things. For instance, Remdesivir, which is used for treating COVID actually came from the genetic material of a Japanese sea sponge. The enzymes from a microbe in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge are being used to develop biofuels. And German firm BASF has even taken the genetic sequence from a marine microbe and used it in a rapeseed plant to create omega-3-enriched canola oil.

All of these breakthroughs are often worth millions of dollars.

So there’s always a question of who owns these resources really?

Theoretically, since they come from the high seas, they belong to the world. But it seems more like a case of ‘finders keepers’. Because if you dissect who’s been filing patents on these marine genes, you’ll find something quite shocking. 98% of patents are from just 10 developed countries. And one single commercial corporation registered 47% of them. The MGRs are heavily concentrated in the hands of a few.

So yeah, if you tie in the overfishing, over-mining, and the potential of MGR, you’ll see why countries have been clamouring to regulate the seas. They want to conserve it and protect marine life. They want to stop people and mega-corporations from exploiting it ruthlessly. They want to prevent already rich entities from cashing in even further.

And the regulation that’ll enable all this and more could finally be here. Because nearly 20 years after countries first got together to hash out ways to protect these high seas, we finally have a consensus — the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty is ready. Or just call it the High Seas Treaty if the official name is a mouthful.

So, how will this change things for the better?

For starters, 30% of the world’s international waters will become marine protected areas (MPAs). Think of the MPA as a protected wildlife park in the ocean. The fish, mammals, and marine plants will be protected. It could prevent commercial ships from plying on certain routes. And it might put a hard stop to mining in these protected areas.

Also, the marine genetic resources of the high seas will hopefully be shared among countries now. The benefits won’t accrue to just a few. And developed countries will also make annual contributions to a special fund. This fund can then be used by developing nations to improve their marine conservation efforts as well.

And finally, Dr Divya Karnad of Ashoka University points out something quite pertinent.

Currently, most sea-based treaties are bilateral in nature. This means the deal is just between two countries. And bad actors might easily slip through the nets. For instance, there are the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean which the British claim for themselves. Now while the UK has a treaty with Sri Lanka that prevents its fisherfolk from the waters in the area, India isn’t part of the agreement. So Indian boats apparently have been hunting sharks in the region.

And they haven’t got into trouble. A multilateral High Seas Treaty will change all of this.

So yeah, hopefully, this is just the start of marine conservation. Because for over two centuries, the oceans have worked as sponges. They’ve absorbed 25% of the carbon dioxide we generate when we burn fossil fuels. And almost all of the heat from global warming.

They’ve been protecting us from our own follies. And we’ve made our oceans sick. But now — It’s time to heal them.

Until then…



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