Safeguarding the biodiversity of the open oceans

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UN convention signed off Safeguarding the biodiversity of the open oceans

In future, regulations for the protection of biodiversity will be standardised worldwide for marine zones that lie outside of areas of national sovereignty. This has been stipulated in a UN convention, which has been under negotiation by the international community for many years and which is of particular concern to Germany. The Federal Cabinet has given the convention its formal approval.

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View of the sea by moonlight.

Protecting biodiversity on the high seas will increase the resilience of the oceans.

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto/vladiislav

The Federal Cabinet signed off on the United Nations Convention for the Protection of the High Seas on 13 September 2023. "Healthy oceans are vital to our survival," said Steffi Lemke, Federal Minister for the Environment, following the meeting of the Federal Cabinet. "Marine conservation is helping us to find solutions to the climate and pollution crises as well as species extinction."  

The convention is the outcome of years of intensive international negotiations which were formally concluded in June 2023. Germany will be among the first signatories at the official UN ceremony in New York on 20 September 2023. 

Germany's particular interest in the United Nations Convention for the Protection of the High Seas is based on the paramount importance of the oceans for biodiversity and climate protection, as well as the fact that all large and small seas and oceans are interconnected. As Sebastian Unger, the Federal Government's Commissioner for the Oceans, who has played a key role in negotiating the Convention on behalf of Germany since he took office a year ago, said ahead of the signing of the United Nations Convention for the Protection of the High Seas, all of the world’s oceans are currently under threat and subject to extreme pressure. 

This Convention is the first multilateral treaty to establish uniform rules for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. As such, the UN Convention for the Protection of the High Seas provides, for the first time, specific environmental rules governing maritime areas beyond national jurisdiction., Until now, regulation has primarily focused on economic human activities on the high seas, as well as shipping and research. 

According to Steffi Lemke, Federal Minister for the Environment "Nature conservation rules for the high seas have been lacking until now, and we are in the process of closing this loophole.” Germany, she said, would be taking a decisive lead in this area and developing a national marine strategy to enhance marine protection.

Marine species and ecosystems under threat

It is important to have standardised regulations because marine species and ecosystems are primarily threatened by the impact of human activities. The world's oceans are not infinitely resilient, which is why better protection is needed for marine ecosystems. This includes designating protected marine zones, in which species would have a better chance of recovering and habitats could be stabilised by reducing or prohibiting their exploitation by humans, which would then make them more resistant to stress.

Lemke stressed the importance of establishing a global, interconnected network of well-managed protected marine zones. This is why it is the declared goal of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to place about one third of the world's oceans under an interconnected protection regime. 

Historically significant in terms of multilateralism

Reaching this agreement is hugely significant, not only for the protection of the sea, but also because this area of the high seas covers around 40 per cent of the Earth's surface. It also represents a historic success for multilateralism following intensive negotiations. 

The global community had already agreed to designate 30 per cent of the oceans as protected areas by 2030 at the World Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December 2022. This Convention provides the legal framework for designating protected areas on the high seas, which has been lacking until now. Further negotiations will be required to determine how the growing appetite for the raw materials and metals hidden in the deep sea is to be addressed in concrete terms. 

The Convention in question regulates the following areas:

  • the establishment of protected marine zones through effective conservation measures,
  • mandatory environmental impact assessments of human activities that have a significant impact on the marine environment on the high seas,
  • the management of genetic resources of marine animals and plants found in international waters, and 
  • providing support for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity by countries of the Global South through capacity building measures and technology transfer.

What will happen until the Convention enters into force? 

The process of ratification and domestic implementation of the Convention will follow immediately after the Convention is signed. The Convention will enter into force 120 days after the 60th ratification certificate has been submitted.