From February 20 to March 4, the final BBNJ negotiations took place in New York, with the aim of adopting an international treaty for the protection of biodiversity on the high seas. The agreement was reached after 17 years of intense discussions and negotiations at the United Nations. Belgium played an active role in shaping and finalizing this historic treaty. It will now become possible to create protected areas on the high seas, beyond territorial waters.

The new treaty is of utmost importance to Belgium, as our country, as a founder of the Blue Leaders in 2019, strongly advocates for ocean protection and the preservation of its resources. The adoption of the goal to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 during the COP Biodiversity in Montreal in December last year was a crucial first step. The conclusion of this new Treaty for the Protection of Biodiversity on the High Seas (BBNJ – Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction) is the second and final step before effective protection can be implemented.

The Importance of the Ocean

The ocean is crucial for preserving life on Earth. It serves as a source of food and energy for millions of people, regulates the climate, and provides oxygen. Unfortunately, the ocean is threatened by pollution, overfishing, climate change, and other human activities.

Protecting our ocean is essential for the planet's future. One of the key reasons is the unique role the ocean plays in combating climate change. It absorbs about one-third of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by human activities, helping reduce global warming and stabilize the climate.

© Maximiliano Bello

The Importance of High Seas Marine Reserves

The new BBNJ treaty was necessary to create protected areas (marine reserves) on the high seas. Seventy percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, of which three-quarters are high seas that were not previously fully protected by the international community.

Thanks to this treaty, the final step has been taken to transform 30% of these high seas into marine protected areas by 2030. These areas will have strict regulations on human activities, including sustainable shipping, scientific research respecting nature, sustainable marine tourism, and a halt to uncontrolled fishing.

Scientific consensus holds that protecting at least 30% of the ocean through the establishment of marine protected areas is necessary to have a resilient ocean that can impact climate change. Achieving 30% represents the tipping point to maintain the livability of the remaining 70%.

In addition to protected areas, the treaty also addresses access to marine genetic resources and the fair distribution of benefits derived from them, environmental impact assessments of high-sea activities, capacity building, and the transfer of marine technology. Like the climate treaty, this treaty will also organize a COP (Conference of the Parties).

Belgium's Role

Belgium actively contributed to the success of the BBNJ negotiations through active participation in the process and bilateral contacts with other countries. Two experts from the Marine Environment Service of the Federal Public Service for Health attended the negotiations. The importance of finalizing the BBNJ treaty was underscored during a high-level event organized by Minister of the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne on the eve of the 2023 Our Ocean Conference in Panama, where policymakers from around the world called for the conclusion of the BBNJ treaty.

The high-level call was reinforced by the announcement of over $100 million in funding to support the ratification and implementation of the treaty. This funding pledge was made possible by private and public philanthropic institutions such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Oceans5, and others. The European Commission has also committed €40 million for the BBNJ treaty and provided €816 million for ocean research.

As a Blue Leader, Belgium will use its influence to quickly establish the first protected area.

Sophie Mirgaux, Belgian Special Envoy for the Ocean (Federal Public Service for Health), who has been following the negotiations since the beginning as a member of the EU negotiation team, said, "This treaty is truly a gamechanger for ocean protection. It will be a challenge to effectively implement this protection in an area so far from the coast. It will require a lot of capacity and will be a long-term effort. But it is necessary, so we must pursue it as an international community."

Belgium's Candidacy for the Secretariat in Brussels

As with other international conventions, a secretariat will be established for BBNJ. It will be a separate secretariat, not under the UN umbrella in New York. This is important to empower the new treaty because there will be lobbying against the establishment of protected areas on the high seas. A separate secretariat can make a strong impact with its own staff and a dedicated budget. Belgium, one of the founders of the Blue Leaders, is a candidate to host this secretariat in Brussels. This not only aligns with our country's commitment in recent years but would also significantly enhance Belgium's international marine reputation.