With The “High Seas Treaty” on Biodiversity Signed, What Do We Need to Do Next?

Representatives of over 80 countries have already signed the long-awaited Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Agreement, or the “High Seas Treaty”. But what is needed to ensure that this historic agreement actually brings desired results?

Around two-thirds of the Earth's ocean lies beyond national boundaries. This expansive area is referred to as the “high seas”, “international waters”, or “areas beyond national jurisdiction.” The high seas typically start at a distance of 200 nautical miles from the coast, and while being distant from the immediate surroundings of coastal communities, their rich biodiversity is not immune to the impact of human activities.

The high seas are home to an intricate tapestry of life that plays a crucial role in maintaining the health and balance of our planet - from species of high commercial and societal importance such as tuna and whales, to unique, unexplored ecosystems such as deep hydrothermal vents and seamounts. From the moment ships embarked on transoceanic voyages, these once remote and unknown areas that belong to nobody and everybody at the same time have become especially vulnerable to overexploitation, habitat destruction, and unsustainable practices.

Charting a New Course to Protect Biodiversity in the High Seas

A growing recognition of the critical role this vast oceanic realm plays in our global ecosystem led to a rise in international efforts to safeguard marine biodiversity in international waters. Following decades of negotiations, these efforts finally reached a historical milestone with the recent adoption of the Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction or Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Agreement. Also known as the “High Seas Treaty”, it is the first international legally binding instrument to conserve and sustainably manage marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

This long-awaited agreement provides a legal framework for addressing various stressors affecting the marine environment in the high seas. It will play a crucial role in achieving the recent ambitious “30x30” initiative to protect 30% of marine ecosystems by 2030.

As of October 2023, the BBNJ/”High Seas Treaty” has been signed by representatives from over 80 countries. However, while Member States celebrate the signing of the Treaty, a key question remains: How do we ensure that this historic agreement effectively safeguards marine biodiversity?

Image2 shutterstock 2297073163Yellowfin tuna—one of many commercially important species inhabiting the high seas. (Image credit: GOOS)

A Fit for Purpose Ocean Observing System to Support BBNJ

The successful implementation of the agreement comes with the challenge of understanding the complex dynamics of ocean life, which requires coordinated monitoring at a global scale to understand current states and trends. The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) plays a critical role in supporting this endeavor.

GOOS, led by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, has developed a global framework of Essential Ocean Variables (EOVs) - key biological, physical and biogeochemical measurements to monitor and track the state of the ocean and its variability. Under this framework, there is a comprehensive set of 12 EOVs dedicated to biodiversity, from microbes and phytoplankton to seabirds and marine mammals. This is the foundation of a fit for purpose ocean observing system to support the BBNJ agreement.

“Three of the main components of the agreement relate to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and genetic resources,” says Karen Evans, Co-Chair of the GOOS Biology and Ecosystems Expert Panel. “In the case of MPAs, we need to know what we are protecting in the first place, and to monitor it through time in order to know if the MPA is actually effective. Similarly, we cannot conduct an EIA without data that shows what is being impacted and how. As for genetic resources, we cannot manage them without first identifying them,” she further explains.

Underpinning the biodiversity EOVs are networks of scientific communities taking coordinated EOV observations of marine life. Information on these various communities and the biodiversity EOV observations they are collecting can be found in the interactive GOOS BioEco Portal.

Critical Marine Biodiversity Observing Gaps Remain

While significant progress has been made through these collaborative efforts, there are still critical gaps in our understanding of marine life—particularly in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Alarming statistics from the BioEco Portal suggest that only 7% of our ocean’s surface is monitored in a sustained way, and the accessibility of observations critical for supporting the BBNJ agreement remains very limited.

The dark ocean depths below 200 meters constitute the largest portion of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Despite this, deep ocean observations are notably scarce and most deep ocean biodiversity and ecosystems remain unobserved. The Deep Ocean Observing Strategy, a GOOS Project endorsed as a UN Ocean Decade Program, aims to address these gaps by broadening and improving cross-disciplinary coordination of deep ocean observing.

Image3 bioecoportalSpatial coverage of known active, long-term biological observations globally. (Image credit: GOOS BioEco Portal)

Accessible Observations to Meet Diverse Needs

Ensuring that the EOV observations are FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) and reach those that need them is part of GOOS’s core mission. This is done in close collaboration with the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS)—another program of the IOC/UNESCO that hosts global biological data sets and provides a key service in facilitating free and open access to data and information on marine life. Through this partnership, GOOS ensures that the biodiversity EOV observations are integrated and made freely available through the OBIS platform.

“New discoveries and mapping of marine life resources can be facilitated through collective and sustained observing efforts, with the coordination facilitated by GOOS and its members. This way, we can ensure that marine life observations are accessible to all, and therefore can be delivered into the BBNJ agreement framework and meet the diverse needs of nations,” says Gabrielle Canonico, Co-Chair of the GOOS Biology and Ecosystems Expert Panel.

Bringing All Hands on Deck to Boost Marine Biodiversity Observations

The GOOS Biology and Ecosystems Expert Panel highlights that it is important to engage all nations in sustained and coordinated collecting of observations that are needed to support not only national priorities, but also those of international agreements such as the BBNJ. These observations can then be integrated into a global system through GOOS.

GOOS coordinates the collection of observations globally through its 13 ocean observing networks, as well as at national and regional scales through its 15 Regional Alliances, and 76 GOOS National Focal Points. By delegating a GOOS National Focal Point, each country can contribute to the global observing system and ensure communication between GOOS and the national ocean observing organizations. This coordination framework is key to facilitating sharing of knowledge, capacity, and technology—contributing to the fourth key element of the BBNJ agreement which focuses on capacity development and technology transfer.

“GOOS looks forward to working with nations collaboratively to focus on further expanding the global collection of biological and ecological ocean observations,” says Joanna Post, the Director of GOOS. “Through the IOC-UNESCO, GOOS offers ongoing support to deliver the operational information nations need for the effective implementation of this crucial BBNJ agreement, and for sustainable ocean management.”

Our Partners

Frontiers in Marine Science

ECO Magazine is a marine science trade publication committed to bringing scientists and professionals the latest ground-breaking research, industry news, and job opportunities from around the world.


8502 SW Kansas Ave
Stuart, FL 34997


Newsletter Signup

The ECO Newsletter is a weekly email featuring the Top 10 stories of the past seven days, providing readers with a convenient way to stay abreast on the latest ocean science and industry news.