Your Voices Matter: New High Seas Treaty Presents a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity for Ocean Sciences

Your Voices Matter: New High Seas Treaty Presents a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity for Ocean Sciences

Please join The Peter Girguis Lab at Harvard University for an informational virtual consultation with the science community to discuss current negotiations regarding marine genetic resources in the UN High Seas Treaty.   Register for the workshop hereThe agenda and speaker lineup can be accessed here. Co-sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the International Council of Environmental Law, and ASLO. Read on for more information.

A picture from September 24, 1982. This is a photo of the resumed eleventh session of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Seas, three-days session to prepare the final text of the Convention on the Law if the Sea adopted in April, United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo credit: United Nations.

Many oceanographers, marine scientists, and marine engineers work on the “high seas”’—the areas of the ocean that are beyond any country’s national jurisdiction. Though portrayed by film and fiction as a kind of oceanic Wild West, the high seas are managed and regulated by a complex network of organizations and agreements created over the last half century, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Convention). The Convention is a set of legal requirements on particular ocean-related topics, which countries agree to abide by. The Convention was the product of the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which took place between 1973 and 1982. The negotiations were a Herculean, and largely successful, effort. 191 countries from all around the world signed the Convention on the first day alone. In 320 articles and annexes, it established rules governing all matters on the law of the sea. The Convention addresses issues related to exclusive economic zones, continental shelf jurisdiction, navigation, and deep seabed mining, among other topics. At the time of the negotiations, the countries aimed the text to be “future proof,” however, the need for clarity, changes in biodiversity (e.g., climate change), and the varying values, interests, and objectives have limited the Convention’s efficacy in addressing some matters, such as conservation of marine biodiversity. It should be noted that while the United States has not ratified the Convention, it considers most of the rules customary international law and follows the obligations, including those related to marine scientific research.

A new global treaty to promote the conservation and sustainable use of the high seas

In 2018, after more than a decade of preparations and discussions, the United Nations Member States began negotiating a new global binding treaty with the goal of combatting the rapid degradation of the high seas biodiversity (Treaty). The Treaty aims to provide regulations and other measures that will lead to better implementation of the Convention, especially to protect the high seas biodiversity through enhanced conservation and sustainable use. The new treaty focuses on better cooperation and collaboration among all stakeholders and advancing scientific research, globally. The Treaty also aims to address global inequities in scientific access to research expeditions, samples, data, and the resulting intellectual property and commercial benefits. Many countries believe, for example, that some organisms and their inherent genetic and physiological capacities (collectively referred to as marine genetic resources, or MGRs) may be endemic to the high seas, and since the high seas belongs to all, benefits should be equitably shared among the States Parties.

Developing a new global treaty focused on conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the waters beyond national jurisdiction. Shown from left to right is Ms. Rena Lee, Singapore, Intergovernmental Conference President; Ms. Gabriele Goettsche-Wanli, Director, UN Division of Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea (UNDOALOS); Ms. Alice Hicuburundi, UNDOALOS; Ms. Charlotte Salpin, UNDOALOS. Photo credit: IISD third session of the intergovernmental conference, UNHQ, NY, 30 August 2019

To accomplish such goal, the Treaty may develop a framework on mandatory or voluntary global sharing of benefits (both monetary and non-monetary) arising from the collection and use of MGRs of the high seas. This might include, for example, requirements that leverage the commercialization of MGRs (a biotech patent, for example) to promote capacity building for research and conservation around the world, with a focus on supporting developing countries.

The Treaty also aims to increase the use of area-based management tools, including marine protected areas, which are considered crucial to enhance protection of the high seas. There is also discussion of requiring environmental impact assessments (EIAs) in a more robust and uniform way to ensure that there will be no significant harm to the high seas biodiversity. Many countries also acknowledge that a wealth of samples and data collected in the high seas (by all stakeholders) should be openly available to all, to support conservation and economic development around the world. For example, while much of the oceanographic data collected today (perhaps even most of it) is publicly available, not all the data is easily accessible and understandable to a non-specialist. Accordingly, many countries seek to develop a way to make these data openly accessible to all through a new information hub, a so-called “clearing house mechanism,” which could be connected to other databases and have interactive functions that help use and comprehension of data.  Capacity building and transfer of marine technology play prominent roles and are considered to be a critical link to ensure that all States Parties have the resources to comply with the new treaty obligations.

A graphical depiction of the cumulative human impact on the world’s ocean. From Halpern et. al., 2015. Nature Communications 6:7615 doi:10.1038/ncomms8615(2015). Data visualization courtesy of the Center for Environmental Visualization, University of Washington.



The pale blue (200 NM) represents areas beyond national jurisdiction (high seas). Author: De Hauwere, Nathalie. Available at:

The need for greater engagement between scientists and Treaty negotiators

To date, many aspects of the Treaty remain in flux and the discussions will benefit greatly from input from scientists. For example, to promote conservation of MGRs of the high seas, a question has been raised as to whether scientists working on the high seas could provide the scientific genus and species names of all specimens, from animals and alga to microbes, as well as information on their density and distribution, collected during an expedition. To ensure global access to the resulting data, these and other data from each high seas expedition could be deposited into the new clearing house mechanism in a “timely” manner, and those data would be openly available to all. With respect to sharing of benefits arising from the use of MGRs of the high seas (e.g., patent royalties), a question has been raised as to whether certain financial benefits could be distributed among States Parties, with a focus on developing countries, to support conservation efforts worldwide.  There is also growing support to ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are protected by the Treaty.  Broadly speaking, given the complexities inherent to managing any shared resource, it is not surprising that proposals have ranged widely from having no further regulations on high seas research to creating a centralized “universal” database and mandatory sample repository. 

There is also a possibility that the forthcoming agreement could, unintentionally, disrupt the work of scientists who conduct research on the high seas, or use MGRs derived from the high seas. As a hyperbolic example, if the Treaty required that all scientists working on the high seas provide, within six months of the end of the expedition, the scientific genus and species names of the animals or microbes collected during an expedition, a great many scientists would be, de facto, out of compliance because this effort can take years to complete. This is especially true when describing an organism previously unknown to science. Moreover, microbiologists would immediately be out of compliance because the Linnean concept of species does not easily translate to microorganisms (see Murray et. al., 2021). Even if a Principal Investigator could identify and quantify all their samples, many simply do not have the financial, technological, or human resources to do so. Thus, even if regulatory compliance is a priority, scientists could find themselves legally out of line with the Treaty. 

Photograph of an Intergovernmental Conference plenary session of the informal working group on Marine Genetic Resources. Photo credit: IISD, second session of the intergovernmental conference, UNHQ, NY, 26 March 2019

There is also discussion about requiring researchers/research vessels to conduct an EIA prior to a given expedition. If, as another hyperbolic example, the treaty required that all scientific expeditions conduct an extensive EIA prior to their research activities, the efficacy of some scientific expeditions could be diminished as investigators would need to spend their limited sea time on conducting an EIA at the expense of their research. While there are certainly examples of scientific expeditions that could benefit from conducting an EIA (such as expeditions in marine protected areas or in highly sensitive, unique habitats), many scientific expeditions on the high seas have a modest long-term effect on the ecosystem. Midwater expeditions with ROVs, water samplers, or scientific trawls for example likely have a negligible impact on the habitat. Furthermore, for research conducted in areas never been explored, lack of baseline information of the area in question may make it difficult to conduct a robust EIA. 

Four substantive elements of the High Seas Treaty, as stated in UN General Assembly resolution 72/249

The President of the Treaty negotiations and the Member States have and continue to support transparency in the process, encouraging participation of various stakeholders. Some academic scientists, including the authors of this article, have hosted workshops to connect key Member State delegates with scientists who work on the high seas, as well as scientists whose research uses MGRs for commercially-relevant research (e.g., natural products and pharmaceuticals). In our case, the workshops focus on providing information on how high seas expeditions are funded, on the diversity of scientific activities on the high seas, and on the conventions and best practices of high seas research, both before, during, and after a given expedition. Such workshops provide the delegates with information and options that can be contemplated by all stakeholders, and allows the participants of the workshops to remain objective and neutral.

That being said, engagement with the broader scientific community has been limited. Further consultations between the Member State delegates and the broader scientific community could help mitigate the risk that the agreement will unintentionally hinder scientific research and, thus, work against conservation and sustainable use of the high seas. Further exchanges would also allow a broader diversity of marine scientists from around the world to provide invaluable input on fostering capacity building and transfer of marine technology, especially for the developing country scientists.

A Virtual Seminar: Opportunities for engagement between High Seas Treaty negotiators and the broader scientific community

In collaboration with the International Council for Environmental Law, The Girguis Lab at Harvard University is hosting a virtual seminar with Member State delegates that is aimed at providing:

  1. A) scientists from the ASLO community with an overview of the negotiations to date and possible ramifications for research activities on the high seas, as well as the use of high seas MGRs in research and development, 
  2. B) scientists with a venue to ask questions of the Member State delegates, and 
  3. C) opportunities for further engagement.

This workshop is an opportunity for you to become engaged in the most important international treaty negotiations for fostering scientific research and development as well as for developing new ideas on ocean governance policy, international relations, and international law. The ASLO and broader scientific community can provide valuable input so that the Treaty will be based on best available science and not be at odds with the very goals of the Treaty: to promote conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity of the high seas. In light of the unprecedented rate of degradation of the ocean ecosystems, there is a momentum to complete the negotiations as soon as possible. For that reason, the window for a chance to provide input may be closing soon.

Please register for the workshop.  You will receive a unique weblink to join in the virtual workshop the day before the session. To accommodate scholars in different time zones, we will be hosting this same workshop twice:

Session 1
July 7, 2021
8:00 am to 9:00 am (EDT)

Session 2
July 8, 2021
7:00 pm to 8:00 pm (EDT)

The meeting agenda for each of these sessions can be accessed here.

We hope to see you there.


Peter Girguis, Ph.D., Ms. Hiroko Muraki Gottlieb, and Ms. Jennifer Thomson

References:  Murray, A.E., Freudenstein, J., Gribaldo, S., Hatzenpichler, R., Hugenholtz, P., Kämpfer, P., Konstantinidis, K.T., Lane, C.E., Papke, R.T., Parks, D.H. Rossello-Mora, R., et al.,  2020. Roadmap for naming uncultivated Archaea and Bacteria. Nature Microbiology, pp.1-7.

This blog is written to introduce readers to some of the aspects of the High Seas Treaty, which is under negotiations at the United Nations. The forthcoming workshops are also aimed to provide the broader scientific community with insights in the negotiations, and opportunities for further engagement. Please note that the Member State delegates will speak in their personal capacity under Chatham House Rule. Also, the views expressed herein are of the authors in their individual capacity. They do not represent the views of Harvard University, International Council of Environmental Law, or ASLO.

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