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The oceans can't wait for the High Seas Treaty any longer

As a maritime nation with a rich seafaring history, the UK has always had a special relationship with the high seas. It is time the UK gave back to the oceans by ratifying the High Seas Treaty, stamping down on illegal fishing, protecting reefs and other habitats that sea creatures call home, and unleashing this natural carbon store to help combat climate change.

Elinor Bale, Nature Programme Officer at CEN

Only 1.2% of the high seas are protected today, leaving them susceptible to exploitation by shipping, unsustainable fishing practices, and plastic pollution. In particular, fishing practices like bottom trawling and illegal fishing have led to the over-exploitation of over 30% of global fish stocks, while 66% of the ocean is experiencing overfishing. This poses a threat not just to biodiversity but to the 10% of the world's population who are dependent on the ocean as a vital source of protein and employment.  

The High Seas Treaty plans to change this.

The treaty, spearheaded by the UK, creates the necessary legal framework to establish marine protected areas (MPA) in the high seas. These MPAs will enable us to conserve essential marine ecosystems from many damaging activities. Limiting activity within MPAs provides respite for the marine ecosystem, providing fish stocks and other marine life with the breather to replenish. This will then spillover into neighbouring waters where fishing can take place, allowing coastal and fishing communities, and economies to reap the benefits. 

As a nation of animal lovers, we take great pride in protecting and enhancing nature in the UK and beyond.  Protecting the high seas is another opportunity to safeguard the unique biodiversity of the ocean. By preserving ecologically sensitive zones and biodiversity, the enactment of the High Seas Treaty will also be integral to meeting the global target to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 (30x30). 

But we are still waiting for the High Seas Treaty to come into force. This is because it must first be ratified by at least 60 member states. Just seven - Belize, Chile, Monaco, Palau, Seychelles, The Federated States of Micronesia, Mauritius - out of a possible 89 signatories have ratified so far, leaving the high seas vulnerable to ecological destruction. Despite helping champion the High Seas Treaty, the UK has not yet passed the High Seas Treaty through Parliament. 

We shouldn’t underestimate the UK’s global influence: the ratification of the treaty is not just one more name closer to the 60 needed for implementation. Once the UK ratifies, other countries will follow suit and the high seas will no longer be susceptible to unchecked destruction and exploitation. 

The UK under successive Conservative governments pushed for, negotiated, and ultimately signed the treaty. An otherwise admirable record of pushing ocean protection projects over the line will be tarnished if the next UK government fails to act to ratify the High Seas Treaty as a priority. The determination of the Conservative government to implement the Blue Belt Programme, a network of MPAs around UK Overseas Territories, must be replicated by the next government. 

The treaty is essential to combat climate change and prevent biodiversity loss and will ensure the high seas will no longer be susceptible to unchecked destruction and exploitation. Conservative governments led the treaty negotiations, a remarkable multilateral achievement, and demonstrated, once again, the UK’s credentials as a global ocean leader. The next government must not push ratification to the back of the agenda.


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