The U.S. Senate should approve the U.N. high seas treaty — we need this protection for our ocean

Environmentalist Dan Haifley says the newly minted United Nations high seas treaty will protect the “wild west” of international waters, fight climate change and preserve biodiversity, and that the U.S. Senate, which failed to ratify the previous agreement on seabed mining, should approve it. The U.N. vote is scheduled for June 19.

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After nearly two decades of hard work, United Nations countries finished a draft agreement in early March to protect biodiversity and fight pollution and climate change on the high seas. Its final approval by the U.N. — scheduled for June 19 — and its subsequent ratification by participating nations matter to us in Monterey Bay because it would provide for protections for marine life we cherish.

The treaty would allow protections for the vast expanse of our ocean that isn’t governed by any nation, a space that covers half our planet’s surface.

It would allow measures to protect wildlife, such as blue whales, great white sharks and northern elephant seals, which migrate beyond Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and even U.S. waters into international waters, where protections are few and enforcement is virtually nonexistent.

Representatives of all 193 U.N. nations were involved in writing the treaty’s text, and environmental groups represented by the High Seas Alliance support it. United Nations member states are due to adopt the treaty when they meet June 19. After that, 60 individual nations must approve it before its provisions take effect.

The United States Senate should ratify this treaty and be a party to it.

That act is not a given. For example, a U.N. Law of the Sea Convention on deep-sea mining was signed by the U.S. in 1994, but has not been approved by the Senate, despite broad support from labor, industry and environmental organizations. The 1994 agreement has drawn opposition from conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation, making it difficult to get the two-thirds Senate vote needed to ratify the treaty.

What it would do

Our nation has an effective system of marine sanctuaries to protect strategic ocean areas within our own waters, and we can and should participate in this similar effort in international seas.

Governments can regulate natural resources, including the ocean and sea floor, out to 200 nautical miles off their coasts. This is known as an exclusive economic zone, according to the U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was adopted in 1982 and has been in effect since 1994.

The area outside these territorial waters, the high seas, contains two-thirds of the ocean’s surface and 95% of its volume.

The treaty would allow the creation of protected areas, which could look like our national marine sanctuaries, that can cover up to 30% of the ocean. The treaty would not regulate fishing, which is done by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations. But protected areas established under the treaty could prohibit certain types of fishing.

The agreement would establish new standards for environmental assessments of impactful human projects like deep-sea mining. It would provide that the economic benefits of genetic resources for medical research would be available to all, including developing states.

The treaty also ensures “that traditional knowledge associated with marine genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction that is held by Indigenous Peoples and local communities shall only be accessed with the free, prior and informed consent or approval and involvement of these Indigenous Peoples and local communities.” The results of research in the ocean areas covered by the treaty could also be shared among nations.

Why we need this treaty

The ocean covers more than two-thirds of earth’s surface and absorbs excess carbon, provides food, creates and influences weather and contains the bulk of life on earth. As earth’s largest natural feature, it is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including changes in its chemistry known as acidification. If its habitats are kept healthier and life within it is given a better chance to thrive, it can be more resilient and absorb atmospheric carbon.

Two-thirds of the ocean is outside any nation’s jurisdiction. There are treaties in international waters around issues such as dumping, but they are not governed by anyone — which makes enforcement difficult.

Exploitive practices can happen in commercial activities such as sea-floor mining, fishing and dumping. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 10% of ocean species are at risk of extinction. Climate change, human consumption, plastic pollution and other stressors are putting pressure on numerous species.

For example, eight years ago, I visited the Galapagos Islands, which are 600 miles away from the mainland of South America but are part of the nation of Ecuador. The territorial waters around it are a massive marine reserve. Within the waters, species are protected. A park official told me fishing vessels hover just outside the territorial borders surrounding the archipelago to harvest manta rays that wander just beyond the borders.

Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Park
Elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park.

Here at home, our northern elephant seals, which inhabit rookeries in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary at Point Año Nuevo and just north of San Simeon, can dive 6,000 feet deep and travel thousands of miles across the sea, often outside U.S. waters. The same is true for the blue whale, another iconic species associated with Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

This treaty will allow for measures that protect these species that spend time in international waters.

Complementing our own ocean protection work

In 1972, Congress approved the law that creates and manages national marine sanctuaries, which provide for education, research and resource protection for strategic national ocean and Great Lakes areas.

Managed by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marine sanctuaries cooperate with state and local governments and nongovernmental entities to, for example, protect water quality. A great example is the work Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary does with farmers to reduce agricultural runoff.

Similarly, a high seas treaty would encourage international collaboration to reduce pollution, fight climate change, curb exploitative practices and increase research and education.

Once the treaty goes into force, high seas protections, such as marine protected areas, might not happen as quickly as, say, environmental initiatives within the U.S. But it will give us a chance that we didn’t have before, to do something significant we couldn’t before, in the vast waters beyond national boundaries.

Please encourage the United States Senate to support the treaty when it comes up for ratification. It’ll be tough, but the results will be worth it.

Dan Haifley serves on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation board of directors and can be reached at He was the director of Save Our Shores from 1986 to 1993, and O’Neill Sea Odyssey from 1999 to 2019. Learn more at

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