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A new treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas

Over the last century, human industrial activity in the open-ocean has increased drastically. As the intensity and diversity of human industries in the high seas continues to grow, the governance and policy mechanisms in charge of regulating the sustainability of said activities must also evolve. Said mechanisms will not only have to account for cumulative and synergistic impacts across sectoral ocean industries but do so in the face of a changing climate, which directly affects global oceanographic and biological conditions. Almost 70 years after the expansion of commercial fisheries in the high seas, the international community is convening at the United Nations to respond to a serious governance gap concerning the future sustainability of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). Members of the research community at Duke University have been heavily engaged in this journey over the last decade. The negotiations for this historic treaty are set to last two years, from 2018 to 2020.

While there have been calls for a new international legally binding instrument to govern the use of biodiversity in the high seas for many years, the first firm step taken by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) towards such an agreement happened in 2015 through UNGA Resolution 69/292. The Resolution called for the creation of a two-year Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) to draft recommendations to the UNGA over four thematic priorities to be considered in the development of the new treat.


Members of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL), led by Dr. Patrick Halpin, were among the few academic institutions present during all four sessions of the PrepCom. MGEL’s involvement during the PrepCom process was twofold: they spearheaded the writing of eight policy briefs across a wide range  of policy and ecology topics in partnership with 19 different institutions; they co-organized side events at the United Nations headquarters with State delegations (e.g. UN delegation of Costa Rica) and non-State actors (e.g. International Union for Conservation of Nature) to provide information on the oceanographic dynamics and ecology of the high seas.

The PrepCom process columnated in 2017 with the passing of UNGA Resolution 72/249, which calls for the convocation of four intergovernmental conferences between 2018 to 2020 to draft a new international legally binding instrument for the high seas. Members of the MGEL will continue their engagement throughout this process in a similar capacity to the PrepCom process, with the primary objective of bringing the most sound scientific knowledge on high seas ecological and oceanographic dynamics to the table.

[NOTE: All of the material on this page will be updated as the negotiations at the UNGA unfold between 2018-2020]

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