A patchwork of international bodies and treaties manage ocean resources and human activity in areas beyond any state's national jurisdiction. However, these governance bodies vary greatly in terms of their mandate, which determines their geographic scope, their objective, the legally binding nature of decisions they adopt, and whether they regulate one or several activities. Their jurisdictions often overlap, but virtually no mechanisms exist to coordinate across geographic areas and sectors. Too often, this piecemeal governance approach leads to the degradation of the environment and its resources, and makes deploying management and conservation tools such as environmental impact assessments and marine protected areas (MPAs), including marine reserves, challenging both legally and logistically.
At the 2010 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, States committed to conserve 10 percent of marine environments, a target reaffirmed in the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A 2016 study found that in order to successfully conserve healthy ecosystems and help degraded ones recover, 30 percent of the world's ocean needs protection through MPAs, including reserves. In spite of this global need for marine conservation, less than 1 percent of the high seas are fully protected.
States have responded to these governance and conservation gaps by committing to develop an "international legally binding instrument … on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction" through the United Nations. In March 2016, the process began with the first of four meetings in which governments will begin developing an agreement to protect the high seas. With sustained momentum, the United Nations General Assembly could fully adopt a treaty by 2020.
The following maps help to illustrate the current governance gaps on the high seas and emphasize the critical need for this treaty. For governance organizations to effectively manage and conserve life on the high seas, three key elements are necessary: regulatory authority, a mandate to conserve the ecosystem as a whole, and the ability to manage across multiple sectors. Although some organizations have two of these three elements, they all lack comprehensive mandates to effectively manage and conserve ecosystems on the high seas.