white and blue body of water

Last weekend, the United Nations finally reached an agreement to protect the oceans after decades of negotiations. Today, I want to talk about ther UN Treaty on the High Seas while introducing you all to some new vocabulary!

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  • Treaty (n) – a written agreement between two or more countries, formally approved and signed by their leaders.
    • The two countries have never signed a peace treaty.
  • To safeguard (v) – to protect something from harm.
    • The court is supposed to safeguard our right to free speech and a free press.
  • Marine (adj) – related to the sea.
    • The oil slick seriously threatens marine life around the islands.
  • To negotiate – to have formal discussions with someone in order to reach an agreement with them.
    • I’m negotiating for a new contract.
  • Legal framework (n) – a system of rules and ideas that is used to plan or decide something.
    • We need a legal framework for resolving disputes.
  • Landmark (n) – an important stage in the development of something
    • The landmark deal secures 6,000 jobs.
  • Provision (n) – a statement within an agreement or a law that a particular thing must happen or be done, especially before another can happen or be done
    • We have inserted certain provisions into the treaty to safeguard foreign workers,
  • To reach (v) – to make a decision, agreement, etc. about something.
    • We’ll inform you when a decision has been reached

The UN Treaty on the High Seas

Over a decade ago, the United Nations began negotiating a landmark international treaty to protect our oceans. After years of arguments and disagreements, over things like fishing rights and the environment, an agreement was finally reached on Saturday 4th March.

The UN High Seas Treaty is an historic agreement. It will protect up to 30% of the world’s oceans and commits UN members to conserve and safeguard marine animals and endangered species. Considering that up to 10% of marine species are currently “at risk of extinction”, this new treaty is a vital step in the right direction.

Today I want to explain the UN Treaty on the High Seas. We’ll look at what the “High Seas” actually include, the background and development of the treaty, the contents of the new treaty, and suggest a few possibilities for the future!


What are the “High Seas”?

The last time the world negotiated an international agreement on protecting the ocean was over 40 years ago. In 1982, countries agreed on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (or UNCLOS) is an international treaty that sets out the legal framework for the use and protection of the world’s oceans and their resources. It was first adopted in 1982 and has been ratified by 168 countries.

The convention establishes rules for the use of maritime spaces, including territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, and the high seas. It also outlines rights and responsibilities related to fishing, shipping, and marine scientific research, as well as provisions for the protection and preservation of the marine environment.

UNCLOS was widely considered a landmark achievement in international law, as it helped to resolve longstanding disputes and promote cooperation among nations. However, some controversies and challenges remained, particularly around issues such as the exploitation of deep-sea minerals and the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems.

The “high seas” in the context of the UN Treaty on the High Seas refers to the part of the oceans that is beyond the control of any individual country. This area, also known as the international waters, extends beyond the 12 nautical mile limit of a country’s territorial waters.

The high seas are an important area for activities such as shipping, fishing, and scientific research, and they are also crucial for the overall health of the planet. The UN Treaty on the High Seas aims to provide a legal framework for the use and protection of this area, as well as address emerging issues related to the high seas, such as marine biodiversity conservation and deep-sea mining.

The Development of the UN Treaty on the High Seas

Although UNCLOS was a significant treaty, there were a number of serious limitations and problems with the agreement. It was not ratified by every country, including powerful and important nations like the USA.

Some of the provisions of the treaty were unclear and uncertain. For example, those related to deep-sea mining and the protection of marine life in the high seas were undeveloped and untested. And the provisions that do aim to protect marine life were widely seen as ineffective and not suitable to address the urgent threats facing the oceans, such as overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

The high seas, as they are not controlled by any individual country, have been particularly difficult to negotiate and discuss. They are international waters, meaning that all countries can use the high seas to catch fish, research, and ship goods. However, out of the entire high seas, only 1% are currently protected. The vast majority of the ocean is unprotected and vulnerable.

Oceans are a vital part of our world. The ecosystems in oceans produce up to half of earth’s oxygen and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

In a recent survey of marine species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 10% were found at risk of extinction. The biggest risks to the ocean are pollution, overfishing, and climate change.

For example, last August the gentle sea mammal called the dugong was declared extinct in China due to overfishing and shipping accidents. Other animals including sharks, whales, and shellfish are at severe risk.

The increasing emissions of carbon dioxide are commonly known to contribute to climate change and global warming, but it is also causing the ocean to become more acidic. More acidic oceans are a risk to many species. And, at the same time, climate change is causing rising temperature and natural disasters like cyclones which kill millions of animals every year.  

It is against this background that the need for a new and clearer treaty became apparent. After close to 2 decades of discussions and negotiations, UN member states finally reached an agreement to protect the high seas and oceans.

Negotiations had stalled for years as countries argued over fishing rights, finances, and sharing ocean resources. However, after 38 hours of talks in New York, and agreement was finally reached.

Key Provisions of the Treaty

What is actually in the High Seas Treaty?

The major agreement in the treaty is the 30% of all the international waters in the world will become Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs) by 2030. That is a massive increase from the current 1% of protected ocean.

What exactly is a Marine Protected Area? This is one of the potential problems with the new treaty. While it has been agreed that 30% of the oceans will become protected areas, it has not actually been decided what “protected” means. Some countries want it to be completely protected while others want “sustainable” use to be allowed.

The exact extent of the “protection” will be decided later. In any case, there will be significant restrictions on deep sea mining, shipping, and fishing allowances.

There are also other measures in the treaty. Environmental assessments will be required for any deep-sea activities. And there are provisions for sharing the genetic resources of the ocean. These resources can be used in drug production and industry.

A conference of parties (or COP) will be established specifically for the ocean and high seas.

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Criticisms and Future Directions of the Treaty

Reaching an agreement about the oceans was a major achievement. But there are some potential issues.

The requirements for environmental assessments, for example, do not apply to organisations already regulating mining, fishing, and shipping.

How to fairly share marine genetic resources was one of the major disagreements stopping the signing of any treaty for years. These resources, which come form the genetic material of ocean seaweeds, bacteria, coral, sponges, and other life in the high seas, are highly valuable.

The problem is we don’t know what will be discovered in the future. Agreeing on how to share undiscovered and potential resources has been a struggle. And, as I mentioned already, the procedure and definitions of marine protected areas is still unresolved.

Whi le a treaty has been agreed, it does not mean it is legally and officially implemented. The treat will first need to be formally adopted by the UN, and it then only becomes official once enough countries have signed it and enforce it. Some countries, including Russia, have already expressed reservations.

While the High Seas Treaty is a landmark agreement, there is still a long way to go to ensure our oceans are protected!

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Final Thought

I think UN members agreeing to protect our oceans is great step in the right direction. International waters are a vital part of our planet, but until now have been open to exploitation and misuse. It is necessary to regulate and protect the seas and the life living in them!

We will have to wait to se a whether the agreement will be accepted by all countries governments and will actually make a difference. There is a long way to go to ensure the oceans are protected, but it is important that we start protecting them as soon as possible.

What do you think about the UN Treaty on the High Seas?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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