How a new ocean treaty can avoid a common tragedy

4 min readJan 28, 2020


By John Tanzer, Practice Leader Oceans, WWF International

© Jo Benn / WWF

Once viewed as almost boundless, as a limitless source of seafood and an infinite dump for our waste, we now recognise the fragility of the world’s oceans. As fish stocks dwindle, plastic chokes marine life, and our greenhouse gas emissions warm the seas and change their very chemical composition, it is now clear that our oceans are in peril.

But what is extraordinary is that across the vast majority — two-thirds — of the world’s oceans, there is no comprehensive system for protecting the marine environment. Beyond coastal nations’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones, the oceans belong to no-one and everyone — creating a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’, where a vital collective resource can be plundered by a few, to the cost of everyone.

The good news is that, in 2020, negotiations are due to conclude on a new legally binding global ocean treaty, on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. The bad news is that, in the face of opposition from the handful of countries which are overexploiting the oceans for their own benefit, the ocean treaty risks being toothless, raising the prospect of missing another opportunity to safeguard our planet.

The importance of the BBNJ treaty — technically, a legal instrument building upon the existing UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is mostly concerned with freedom of navigation and the rights of coastal states over their adjacent waters — cannot be overstated.

The oceans beyond national jurisdiction cover more than half the planet, and comprise 80% of its three-dimensional living space. The open ocean and deep-sea environments are some of the least understood areas of the planet. Species living in hitherto unexplored — but highly vulnerable — deep-sea environments could promise breakthrough discoveries in pharmaceuticals and other innovations in biotechnology.

© Simon Lorenz / WWF-Hong Kong

Migratory species such as tuna, squid, turtles, sharks and whales move through these vast areas, and into coastal waters where they provide economic opportunity for local fishers and tourism operators. These represent just two examples of the economic value created by oceans — which also include aquaculture, transport, energy, biotechnology and services such as carbon sequestration — which make the ocean economy worth an estimated USD2.5 trillion/year.

But this vast resource is being overexploited. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a third of global fisheries are being harvested at unsustainable levels, with another 60% being fished at maximum capacity. Only 35 countries operate significant high-seas fishing fleets, yet they are disproportionately degrading a resource that is particularly vital to poor people in less-developed coastal and small-island states.

Worse is yet to come. A small but growing number of companies and governments are eyeing the mineral and energy resources that might be found on and beneath the seabed. In some cases, they are threatening the sort of strip-mining that already scars terrestrial landscapes — but at potentially a much larger scale and in environments about which we know little, except for their vulnerability, their likely importance to wider marine ecosystems and the long time that deep-ocean organisms will take to recover from such devastation.

The ocean treaty could yet prevent further uncontrolled exploitation of the deep seas, enable rebuilding of fish stocks and help ensure their conservation and protection. It has four main elements. The first would enable the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas with the creation of a legal process to designate such MPAs. The second would require environmental impact assessments by governments and companies before undertaking activities that threaten harm to marine organisms or ecosystems.

The third would ensure that the benefits derived from the commercialisation of marine genetic resources are shared more equitably, enabling developing countries to participate in the exploitation of a common resource or through a fund facilitating training in sustainable ocean management. The fourth would involve capacity building and the transfer of marine technology to help developing countries contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity.

In all these elements, there are trade-offs to be negotiated and compromises to be found. Despite two decades of discussion and two years of negotiating, however, progress thus far has been disappointing. Too many governments, often pushed by corporate interests, are failing to look beyond short-term self-interest and see what is at stake for humanity at large and for the planet. Specifically, those countries which dominate high-seas fishing are unwilling to put in place the protections that will prevent the destruction of fish stocks on which their fishing industries rely.

© James Morgan / WWF

What happens on the high seas and deep in the oceans will impact many hundreds of millions of people around the world. Damage wrought by the few, for short-lived profit, will have repercussions for many more, undermining livelihoods and food security, destroying irreplaceable ecosystems and threatening entire species. Negotiators must rise to the challenge and reach agreement on a treaty that can bring the world together to protect our oceans. We cannot afford the alternative.




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