The United Nations Monday formally adopted a historic treaty designed to protect life in the high seas, which is increasingly under threat from pollution, climate change and over fishing.

The pact, agreed to in principle in March, extends for the first time environmental protections to the two-thirds of the ocean that lie beyond national jurisdictions.

Among other things, it will allow for the creation of marine protected areas – safe havens for fish, plants and other vulnerable species – and the use of other so-called “area-based management tools” to more sustainably manage ocean resources.

The so-called “high seas treaty” offers an updated framework to The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that came into force in 1994.

The new treaty comes with the ocean, which plays a vital role in everything from the economy to regulating the climate, labouring under a triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

To better understand what this treaty means for the ocean and biodiversity, we sat down with Leticia Carvalho, Head of the Marine and Freshwater Branch of the United Nations Environment Programme.

This treaty is billed as a major victory for the ocean. Why is that?

Leticia Carvalho (LC): The new agreement provides, for the first time, a legal basis for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas or areas that are beyond national jurisdiction. This is a major step forward in protecting biodiversity in line with the aims of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Kunming-Montreal Global Framework for Biodiversity and for sharing the benefits that arise from the utilization of marine resources in a fair and equitable manner.

Some have said the high seas have essentially been a lawless place when it comes to conservation. How does this treaty change that?

LC: For decades, the high seas have been governed in a fragmented way. While global bodies exist to regulate many of the human activities occurring in the high seas – like shipping, seabed mining and fisheries – to date there has been limited coherence and coordination between them. At the same time, new activities, such as bioprospecting, were not covered. This has resulted in an ocean governance structure that has proven inadequate in stemming environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. The treaty puts a new framework in place to address marine resource conservation, sustainable use and management, and offers new governance tools and institutional mechanisms for decision-making and equitable benefit sharing.

“Bringing transformational change in the form of a new treaty on the high seas in nothing short of a global victory for all.”

This treaty has been hailed as a major victory for multilateralism. What are your thoughts on that?

LC: In a time when so many other multilateral agreements are failing to reach a successful conclusion, the ability for countries to come together around this new instrument for the oceans is indeed a win for multilateralism. Negotiators came with the spirit of resolution and compromise. In the end, the developing world breathed a sigh of relief, and all negotiators could celebrate the acceptance of mandatory benefit-sharing wins. Nothing was left open or unresolved. That is for sure a win for multilateralism and restores faith in humanity and the UN’s ability to bring the world together toward shared goals.

Nearly 10 per cent of marine species are threatened with extinction. How is this treaty going to help conserve biodiversity in the ocean, especially following the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework?

LC: The treaty has the potential to contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity by playing a coordinating role and strengthening, enhancing and promoting cooperation among existing legal instruments and frameworks and relevant global, regional, subregional and sectoral bodies. For example, the treaty has laid out a procedure to establish area-based management tools within the high seas, including marine protected areas. In doing so, the treaty has the potential to support progress towards one of the Kunming-Montreal targets, which calls for protecting 30 percent of the world’s terrestrial and marine habitats by 2030. Such a level of protection would reduce the extinction risk of species and support ocean recovery moving us toward a healthier, resilient and productive ocean ecosystem.

What’s next for this treaty?

LC: The agreement will enter into force 120 days after 60 countries ratify, approve or accede to it. For members to ratify the agreement, they must have national implementing legislation codifying it in-country. Once ratified and in force, this powerful new coordinating mechanism will establish new processes for conserving the marine environment, strengthening capacity building and technology transfer, and ensuring fair and equitable benefits to all parties. The tricky question now is how long will ratification take? It took 12 years for the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas to be ratified. Let’s hope it does not take that long for this treaty. The oceans cannot wait.