Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

At Last, a Treaty on the High Seas! Gabby Carmine’s Experience at BBNJ 

MGEL PhD candidate Gabby Carmine recently had the opportunity to attend the resumed fifth Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). Held at the United National Headquarters from February 20th to March 3rd, 2023, this conference was convened to discuss a treaty to govern the high seas. Gabby attended BBNJ to gain firsthand experience in scientific advising and witness the process of creating such a treaty.  

Gabby Carmine at the United Nations Headquarters for BBNJ.  

This treaty was of great importance because there is no international body that protects high seas biodiversity, Gabby explains. Gabby studies high seas conservation and policy as it relates to fisheries. The first chapter of her dissertation looked at the actors that make up the high seas fishing industry and who benefits for the high seas fishing catch. To learn more about fishing on the high seas, watch this video.  

The treaty on the high seas aims to protect and preserve the marine environment in areas beyond national jurisdiction and move toward sustainable use of these waters. There are a number of concerns regarding biodiversity on the high seas. The high seas are home to highly migratory species, which are often targeted by the fishing industry. Three quarters of high seas fish stocks are now considered depleted or overfished (Cullis-Suzuki & Pauly, 2010). Even if not targeted by fishing, animals are still susceptible to bycatch, the unintentional catch of non-target species. Bottom trawling, a fishing technique that drags nets along the seafloor, also poses threats to deep sea organisms. Deep sea mining has also been proposed in international waters.  

Formal work on a treaty to address these issues began in 2004, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to an Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study conservation and sustainable use of the high seas. Recommendations to start work on a legal framework governing biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction were adopted in 2011. Between 2016 and 2017, the BBNJ preparatory committee met four times to plan the formal negotiations. At the end of 2017, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution to set up formal intergovernmental conferences and create the text for the multi-lateral agreement. These conferences were interrupted by pandemic but resumed with the fourth conference in March 2022. The fifth conference occurred in August of that year but was eventually suspended to be resumed at a later date. That brings us to this conference, the resumed fifth session.  

There were many sticking points to be negotiated at this final conference. The main struggle was to find a balance between the right to fish and protecting the high seas with area-based management tools. Other disagreements had to do with voting and decision-making structures and disputed areas in the high seas.  

Negotiations can best be summed up by Gabby’s experience during the last night of the conference. Everyone hunkered down in the UN headquarters as state delegates negotiated behind closed doors. People passed around bits of news they found and munched on pizza from the Sierra Leone delegation that Gabby describes as “life support.” Morale remained high until the latest version of the treaty text is made available at 1:30am, as people realized that this might not be the end, and they may never get a treaty.  

People sleep on the floor of the UN as Gabby watches the foggy sunrise while waiting for updates on the treaty.  

Gabby recounts “we wake up with the sun and finding myself surrounded by colleagues whose opinions I value and trust. A rare feeling in recent days. The Qatar lounge faces the east river on a foggy morning. A metaphor for where the treaty stands.” 

The foggy morning that begins the last day of negotiations.  

Progress was made on multiple issues overnight, but the day continues with big ups and downs. The plenary continues to get extended, even as delegates have not slept or showered. “We hurry up and wait,” recalls Gabby. “I laugh and bond with colleagues. We guess and hear applause coming from the closed room. The ship has reached the shore. I turn to a colleague and we can’t stop laughing out of exhaustion and joy.” 

Gabby celebrates with colleagues.  

At last, there is a treaty on the high seas. “Having this treaty changes how the high seas are protected. Now there is not only a legal framework for implementation of area-based management tools, capacity building and technology transfer, environmental impact assessments, and the access and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources, and there will be a scientific and technical body! This text lays groundwork for a conference of the parties that is based in science.” 

Want to hear more about Gabby’s experience at BBNJ? Check out this podcast