Landmark High Seas Treaty agreed

Southern right whale flukes
© C Lilley / DOC
Press Release

Over 190 countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand, have signed a landmark treaty ushering in new rules to protect our ocean. After almost two decades of negotiations, this new agreement will allow for the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the high seas. WWF-New Zealand welcomes this agreement and believes it will help fill the gaps in the current patchwork of management bodies - resulting in better cooperation and reduced impact on the high seas from shipping, industrial fishing and other exploitative activities. 

“In addition to being important for climate change mitigation and sustainable resource use, the high seas are home to a vast array of species - many of which are unique and at risk of extinction due to overfishing, pollution, climate change and habitat destruction,” says Dr Kayla Kingdon-Bebb, WWF-New Zealand’s CEO.

“For generations we have been treating the ocean as an endless supply of resources, existing purely for human benefit. This treaty recognises that the loss of nature in the high seas is unsustainable, that marine resources are finite, and that we have a responsibility to care for them.”

As an isolated island nation, New Zealand has a vast maritime area of over 4,083,000 square kilometres - one of the 10 largest in the world, and 15 times larger than our land mass. Around 3% of New Zealand's economy relies on the ocean, with a total of $7.4 billion directly related to sectors active in the marine environment. Critically, our ocean also supports 30% of New Zealand's biodiversity. 

And yet, despite this vast resource worth billions, less than 0.5% of New Zealand’s waters are protected. This has significantly affected our native marine species with approximately 90% of our seabirds, 85% of our invertebrates, 80% of our shorebirds and 22% of our marine mammals either threatened with or at risk of extinction. 

WWF-New Zealand welcomes this agreement which creates a framework to conserve marine life and restrain harmful activities in our ocean such as deep sea mining, and commits to protecting at least 30% of the high seas through the creation of new MPAs.

Dr Kingdon-Bebb stated, “This new treaty isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s a great step forward for our blue planet. We must build on this momentum at home by increasing the protection of New Zealand’s marine and coastal area to reach the 30% target. Surely, if we can secure the agreement of 190 countries to protect 30% of the high seas, we can get 120 MPs to finally commit to urgent action in New Zealand’s waters.”


The Fifth Intergovernmental Conference on a global legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ Agreement) or High Seas Treaty took place at the UN Headquarters in New York from 20 February to 4 March 2023. 

UNCLOS is one of the world’s most widely ratified treaties with 168 Parties to the Convention, entering into force in 1994. The High Seas Treaty is the third “implementing agreement” under UNCLOS, and focuses on four areas: marine genetic resources, area-based management tools including marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, and capacity building and transfer of marine technology.