The high seas are the international waters covering over two thirds of the ocean or nearly 50% of the planet. Many marine species, such as whales, tunas, and sharks spend much of their lives on the high seas, migrating between great ocean basins from feeding to spawning grounds and back again.
Since its first meeting, Ocean Elders has advocated for a treaty on the high seas. In May 2012, we sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting the establishment of a high seas treaty. In May 2012, the article “Plundering the New Wild West” by Sir Richard Branson appeared in Business Day with a call-to-action to world leaders to take notice of the declining ocean health, and encouraged action at the upcoming Rio+20 conference. During that conference, Ocean Elders held a meeting with several influential country officials, including Jean-Pierre Thebault, Ambassador for the Environment of France, Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental & Scientific Affairs, Ms. Kristine Gramstad, State Secretary of Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs of Norway, Donna Petrachenko of Australia, Chief Advisor International Biodiversity and Sustainability & Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and Jacqueline Adler, UNEP Coordinator of the Marine and Coastal Ecosystem Branch to further discuss the high seas.
In August 2013, Sir Richard Branson and James Cameron released an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times which heightened awareness of the risks and troubles of the international waters, those “that lie beyond the jurisdiction of any country, known as the high seas. Yet these waters face escalating pressure from overfishing, deep seabed mining, ocean acidification, chemical and noise pollution, huge gyres of plastic waste, dead zones, ship traffic and destructive fishing tactics such as bottom trawling.” The op-ed called on President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to support a new treaty, and it was reprinted and widely distributed at the start of the UN Informal Working Group meetings on the high seas in New York City that week. At these meetings, this op-ed, supported by social media activity generated significant dialogue amongst attendees. It was during these meetings that the U.S. finally addressed the issue of treaty of the high seas, which to date, had been omitted from earlier forums.
Negotiations are currently underway at the United Nations with the goal of making a decision by the end of 2017 on whether to recommend that the UN General Assembly formalizes an intergovernmental conference to finalize a treaty.