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Oceans and fisheries
News announcement3 September 2019Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

European Commission pleased with progress international negotiations to protect high seas – ambitious final agreement needed by 2020

The European Commission looks back on very constructive negotiations with international partners to protect the marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction – commonly called the high seas.

These negotiations, held under a United Nations Intergovernmental Conference, should lead to international rules for marine protected areas as well as for assessing the environmental impact of activities carried out in the high seas. They will also help use the high seas’ biological resources – in particular its genetic resources – in a more sustainable way.

Delivering a global High Seas Agreement is a priority for Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu VELLA. “Given the alarming state of biodiversity in the oceans, international legal protection of the high seas is absolutely needed. The agreement under negotiation will help us to preserve the environment, achieve better governance of the oceans and balance our objectives of conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity”, he said.

Positions on several key issues continue to diverge, in particular on the marine genetic resources and capacity building and transfer of marine technology parts. Nevertheless, a vast majority of delegations are now fully committed to the process, submitting a large number of textual proposals.

With regard to environmental impact assessments, the idea of assessing the cumulative impacts from different activities on the same ecosystems seemed to receive near unanimous support. The EU proposal to include a provision on Strategic Environmental Assessments is gaining traction.

The EU will now continue to work towards a final agreement by 2020. The European Commission will organise a workshop on environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment in Brussels during the second half of January 2020. Some EU Member States are also planning to organize workshops in support of the negotiations.


Covering nearly two thirds of the world’s oceans, areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) contain marine resources and biodiversity of ecological and socioeconomic importance. However, they are under mounting pressure from pollution, overexploitation and climate change.

Faced with these challenges and with increasing demand for marine resources for i.e. food, medication and energy, an overwhelming majority of states agreed to improve the governance of these areas by a new agreement under the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The agreement should build on existing principles in UNCLOS to achieve a more holistic management of activities in the high seas. These principles include the duty to cooperate, the duty to protect and preserve the marine environment and the duty to undertake prior impact assessment of activities.

This implementing agreement would be the third of its kind following specific agreements on seabed mining in 1994 and management of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks in 1995. The new agreement would bring UNCLOS up to speed with the developments and challenges that have occurred since it was created thirty years ago and would further support the achievement of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, in particular Sustainable Development Goal 14 (“Life Below Water”).

The thirdIntergovernmental Conference (IGC) on an international legally binding instrument under the 1982 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, as the negotiations are formally called, took place at the United Nations in New York from 19 to 30 August 2019. This third IGC proved to be a very constructive session, paving the way for the fourth and final IGC that will take place between 23 March and 3 April 2020.


Publication date
3 September 2019
Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries