- The UN’s High Seas Treaty opens for signatures on September 20th, a historic moment for ocean conservation.
- The distinctive ecosystems of the high seas are in danger due to increased fishing, pollution, and climate catastrophe.
- Urgent need to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to safeguard biodiversity.
- Key high seas biodiversity hotspots identified by the High Seas Alliance.
Commencing on the 20th of September, the United Nations’ high seas treaty will, at last, open its doors for signatures—a momentous juncture initiating the pathway for nations to incorporate it into their domestic legal frameworks.
The treaty’s efficacy necessitates ratification by no less than 60 countries. Within this consequential treaty lies the potential for the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the expansive high seas.
With fishing activity on the high seas surging by approximately 8.5% between 2018 and 2022, according to estimates unveiled this week by Greenpeace, scientists and conservationists find themselves fervently advocating swift government action.
The high seas, characterized by their lack of national jurisdiction, span nearly 50% of our planet’s surface. Enigmatic waters host a panoply of unique ecosystems.
Alas, many regions of the high seas face perilous threats not merely from overfishing but also from pollution, the omnipresent climate crisis, and the scourge of shipping and deep-sea mining.
Rebecca Hubbard, the director of the High Seas Alliance, underscores the paramount importance of establishing MPAs in these vast expanses: “The high seas constitute two-thirds of our planet’s oceans, thus rendering it imperative that we commence the creation of MPAs.”
This alliance, a coalition comprising 52 non-governmental organizations along with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has diligently identified several high-seas biodiversity hotspots that require immediate safeguarding.
Among these critical regions is the Costa Rica Thermal Dome, an ecological gem nestled in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This “dome” materializes when warm coastal waters intertwine with cooler currents, resulting in an upswell.
Such occurrence creates the perfect environment for the growth of blue-green algae. A vast marine food web is supported by these algae, which in turn support iconic species like marlins, sea turtles, and blue whales that prefer these waters for breeding and raising their young. Regrettably, the overfishing, plastic pollution and maritime traffic headed for the Panama Canal pose grave dangers to this region.
In the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the North American mainland, lies the sole known rendezvous point for North Pacific white sharks, aptly dubbed the “white shark cafe.” These apex predators embark on a “winter pilgrimage” from their breeding grounds along the North American coast to converge in this region for sustenance and congregation.
Scientists meticulously observe tagged sharks in this locale, witnessing their rapid dives to depths of up to 450 meters before resurfacing expeditiously.
The Sargasso Sea, an expanse in the Atlantic Ocean renowned for its sprawling mats of sargassum seaweed, stretches approximately 3,200 kilometers in length and 1,100 kilometers in width.
Reverently termed the “golden rainforest of the high seas,” this area teems with biodiversity and functions as a repository of carbon. Its seaweed habitat accommodates over 120 fish species, 145 invertebrate species, 26 seabird species, and other exceptional creatures such as the sargassum frogfish.
Marlins and dolphinfish rely on this zone for spawning, while white sharks find it indispensable for breeding. Nevertheless, overfishing, pollution, the intensification of maritime traffic, and the ominous presence of a garbage patch imperil this precious ecosystem.
In the deep recesses of the ocean, at water depths of 700 to 800 meters, lies the Lost City hydrothermal field—a geological and biological marvel.
This ethereal realm, characterized by 30 colossal hydrothermal vent chimneys ascending from the seafloor, stands unrivaled in its uniqueness.
These immense chimneys, the tallest named Poseidon reaching 60 meters in height, form as seawater reacts with the Earth’s mantle rock, heated by subterranean magma. The resultant mineral-rich water ascends, exiting into the ocean, and upon meeting the frigid seawater, it cools and forms mineral deposits that construct these towering structures.
Despite the extreme conditions, this site teems with life, from microorganisms and snails to crabs and jellyfish.
The Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges, concealed beneath the crystal-clear waters of the southeastern Pacific, represent underwater mountain chains harboring a plethora of ecologically significant species, from rare turtles to commercially valuable catches like swordfish and jack mackerel.
These ridges also serve as vital migration corridors for at least 82 endangered species. Their biodiversity confronts perils ranging from deep-water trawling to the menace of floating plastic debris within the South Pacific gyre, not to mention the looming specter of future mining ventures.
The establishment of MPAs requires judicious planning, and emphasizes experts. The governance and administration of these areas must adhere to principles of inclusivity, equity, and human rights, rooted in widespread community and stakeholder endorsement.
Striking a delicate balance between ecological benefits and local socioeconomic considerations remains imperative.
Alexander Killion, managing director of the Yale University Center for Biodiversity and Global Change, emphasizes the importance of prioritizing the protection of species that are in extreme need while also pursuing carbon and climate goals to halt additional habitat loss.
Additionally, an extensive effort is mandated to chart the distributions of underrepresented marine species and their habitats to avert impending extinctions.
Dr. Simon Walmsley, the chief marine adviser to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) UK, advocates for a network of MPAs that encompass a diverse array of marine habitats, species, and ecological processes, including migration routes.
Given that marine species cross geopolitical borders, such a network is essential for successful long-term protection, especially in light of the escalating climate problem.