In an effort to fix this, countries are meeting at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York until 18 September, marking the start of a two-year process to agree a treaty to protect the high seas.
This is needed because unrestrained and increasingly risky exploitation of resources threatens these huge ecosystems. Fish populations, for example, have declined by 50% over the past 50 years as a result of overfishing and Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
No man’s sea
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) guarantees countries the freedom to fish, travel and lay cables in the high seas. It also defines the responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the ocean, establishing guidelines for businesses, environmental protection, and the management of natural resources.
But technological advances are opening up the seabed to another freedom: extraction of mineral resources. Over ten countries, including China, Korea, Japan and Germany, are currently prospecting for mineral resources in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
The minerals and rare earth metals they gather are valuable components in everyday items like electrical wiring to more complex industrial machinery, and even renewable energy components.
At the moment there is no requirement for operators to submit an environmental impact assessment before starting deep-sea mining, and no overarching agreement to protect biodiversity on the high seas.
Under UNCLOS, almost 20 international organisations manage human activities on the high seas, but they are restricted in their scope. For example, the International Maritime Organization manages safety and prevention of pollution in the shipping sector, whereas regional fisheries management organisations oversee specific fish populations. But many forms of marine life are migratory and frequently move between different habitats.
Depending on the method of calculation used, only 2-7% of the ocean is protected – and less than 1% of the high seas.
“Our battlefield is very fragmented,” says Duncan Currie, a marine law specialist and advisor for the High Seas Alliance and Deep Sea Ocean Coalition, describing the challenge of high seas conservation.
There is an urgent need for a new international consultation mechanism for the sustainable exploitation of resources in the high seas.