Some Good News for the Oceans in a Sea of Environmental Despondency

By Sally Campbell

From the UN Treaty Collection :

10. Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction
New York, 19 June 2023

Note : The Agreement was adopted in New York on 19 June 2023 during the further resumed fifth session of the Intergovernmental conference on an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. The Agreement shall be open for signature in New York on 20 September 2023 and shall remain open for signature until 20 September 2025.
C.N.203.2023.TREATIES-XXI.10 of 20 July 2023 (Opening for Signature).


The UN General Assembly (UNGA) which is the main policy-making entity of the Organisation, comprising all Member States provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the United Nations Charter. Each of the 193 Member States of the United Nations has an equal vote.


Greenpeace’s delegation attended with their new International Executive Director, a small group comprising Greenpeace’s political and climate and some from Greenpeace US – on a mission to protect the oceans. After so much work over several years the result was uplifting: as the sun was setting on the first day Wednesday 20th September that their Global Ocean Treaty was open for signature, 67 countries signed the Global Ocean Treaty.

Countries from all continents, including Chile, China, Fiji, France, Seychelles, the US and Tanzania. Greenpeace welcomed the large number of signatures as a sign of big momentum for the oceans, and called on governments to bring the Treaty in force by the UN Ocean Conference in June 2025.

It is particularly notable that the first country to sign was The Federated States of Micronesia, as the Pacific small island developing states have been champion voices for the Treaty throughout the negotiation process. Germany and Greenpeace discussed a network of MPAs following the science, and also spoke about deep sea mining and the Global Plastic treaty. They already knew about the priority ocean sanctuaries that Greenpeace has identified for protection. How to keep up to date on the signing? The UN is updating the list of countries signing here. As of 29 September 2023, 81 countries have signed including the UK with its declaration below:

(Unless otherwise indicated, the declarations were made upon ratification, accession or succession.)

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Declaration made upon signature:

“In signing the Agreement, the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the “United Kingdom”) recalls Article 71 of the Agreement and has the honour to convey the following declarations:

1. The United Kingdom welcomes the general obligation to interpret and apply the BBNJ Agreement in a manner that promotes coherence and coordination with and that does not undermine other relevant instruments, frameworks and global, regional, subregional and sectoral bodies. In this context, the United Kingdom notes that the Antarctic Treaty system comprehensively addresses the legal, political and environmental considerations unique to that region and provides a comprehensive framework for the international management of the Antarctic.

2. The United Kingdom notes references in paragraph 8 of the Preamble to “the existing rights of Indigenous Peoples, including as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or of, as appropriate, local communities,” and in Article 7(k) to “the rights of Indigenous Peoples or of, as appropriate, local communities”. The United Kingdom’s long-standing and well-established position, set out in its annual explanation of position at the UN General Assembly on the rights of indigenous people, is that human rights are held exclusively by individuals. With the exception of the right of self-determination (Common Article 1 of the two International Human Rights Covenants), the United Kingdom does not recognise collective human rights in international law. The United Kingdom consider this important in ensuring that individuals within groups are not left vulnerable or unprotected by allowing the rights of the groups to supersede the human rights of the individual. The United Kingdom therefore understands any internationally-agreed reference to the rights of indigenous peoples or local communities, including those in the UN
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and, in the Agreement signed today, to refer to those rights bestowed by governments at the national level. The United Kingdom further understands the term “local communities” to be used consistently with the way it is used in the Convention on Biological Diversity.”


As Reuters commented: another step in the efforts to reverse the damage done to fragile marine environments by overfishing and other human activities. The global pact to conserve biodiversity on the high seas was finally agreed in March and formally adopted by the United Nations in June. It is seen as a crucial tool to meet a target agreed last year to protect 30% of the earth’s land and sea by 2030, known as “30 by 30”.

So, good news: What next?
Celebrate how monumental it is that so many countries have signed. The general feeling at Greenpeace and other ENGOs is that the ocean communities here at UNGA are the ones that are celebrating and feeling happy about multilateralism at this moment. But we cannot be complacent, as we know only too well. We have recently seen how our UK government is backtracking on environmental safeguards and future strategy. This is the start of the journey – but now we have a really good understanding of where countries are. We must recognise some countries will have barriers to ratification, and consider how we can all support and/or push countries to bring the Global Ocean Treaty to life and protect the oceans for real.

But there is still more to do. The UK government needs to make it legally binding by passing it through parliament. Can we all call on them to show leadership and pass the Treaty into law now?

The treaty will help protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 by creating a network of ocean sanctuaries that are off limits to harmful industrial activity like oil drilling, industrial fishing and deep-sea mining. Scientists say this is vital for our oceans to recover and thrive.

For this to happen, we need at least 60 governments to pass the Treaty into law. On the first day it opened, 67 countries including France, USA, Philippines and Nigeria joined the UK by signing the Treaty. While this shows strong global intent, it is not legally binding. Governments must now pass it into law in their own countries immediately so it comes into force as soon as possible, this is vital for staying on track to protect our oceans.

The UK has shown leadership throughout the Treaty negotiations, but due to its lack of action to support a ban on deep sea mining and recent announcements to drop domestic climate pledges, the government’s environmental credentials are now in doubt. We cannot allow short-term thinking to ruin the chance of a lifetime to protect our oceans. We must keep the pressure on the government and make sure they pass the Treaty into law now. Join the movement and help keep the pressure up.

The Global Ocean Treaty shows that people power works. Right now, in 2023, less than 3% of our oceans are properly protected, but thanks to people taking action we can make that 30% and make it a reality with enforcement. Make sure you act. And sign the Greenpeace petition:

Tell the UK government to show leadership and pass the Global Ocean Treaty into law now!

Sign the petition here 

Just to reinforce the message about saving our oceans, a September 2023 report from Oceana in the UK (2023). Taking stock: The state of UK fish populations 2023. report produced by Macalister Elliott and Partners Ltd. for Oceana. St Austell, UK, has shown that UK fish stocks are in a deeply troubling state. The report found that over a third of the 104 stocks analysed are being overfished and a quarter have been depleted to critically low sizes, according to the latest scientific assessments. Of the ‘top 10’ stocks on which the UK fishing industry relies, half are overfished or their stock size is at a critically low level. To safeguard marine ecosystems, coastal communities and the future of the fishing industry, the UK government must act urgently to end overfishing and meet its national and international biodiversity commitments.

MORE THAN A THIRD OF STOCKS ARE BEING OVERFISHED, QUARTER ARE AT A CRITICALLY LOW SIZE. Over a third (34%) of the 104 stocks analysed are being overfished and only 45% are sustainably fished. The remainder could not be assessed because of lack of data. As well as fishing pressure, the analysis assessed stock size, revealing that less than half (41%) are deemed to be of a healthy size and a quarter (25%) are in a critical condition. The health of the remaining stocks could not be determined due to lack of data, leaving them at greater risk of overfishing.

ZERO CATCHES ARE ADVISED FOR MULTIPLE STOCKS IN CRISIS. This report considers the top five best (sustainably fished and healthy size) and worst (overfished and low size) performing stocks. Compared to the 2020 baseline, four of the five worst performing still have critically low stock sizes and are being overfished. Three of these five worst performing stocks are in such a state of crisis that a total ban on all catches is advised by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). These stocks are Celtic Sea cod, West of Scotland cod and Irish Sea whiting. The five best performing stocks are typically caught in comparatively small quantities and are of relatively low economic value.

PROGRESS IS LACKING. The ongoing political decision to set Total Allowable Catches (TACs) higher than scientifically advised continues to lead to overfishing of North East Atlantic stocks. Comparing changes between the baseline and today, for instance, shows that six stocks that were a healthy size in 2020 have now declined to a critical state, and only three stocks have moved from being critically low to healthy since 2020. Our fish suppers here in Scotland are at risk !

SUSTAINABLE CATCH LIMITS MEAN HEALTHIER STOCKS. This report confirms that sustainable catch limits lead to healthier fish stocks. For instance, for the five best performing stocks, TACs for 2020-2023 were mainly set in line with ICES scientific advice. However, for four of the five worst performing stocks, TACs were set higher than scientific advice for sustainability.

HALF OF THE 10 MOST IMPORTANT STOCKS ARE OVERFISHED OR IN A ‘CRITICAL’ STATE. Of the top 10 stocks landed in greatest volumes by UK vessels, five are being overfished or their population size is critically low. These include North East Atlantic mackerel, North East Atlantic blue whiting, North Sea anglerfish, North Sea cod and Eastern English Channel king scallops. Therefore, only half of the top stocks on which the UK fishing industry relies are both of a healthy size and sustainably fished. These stocks are North Sea herring, haddock, whiting, saithe and Nephrops.

RECOMMENDATIONS. These results show that fisheries management in the UK is far from reaching the ‘gold standard’ that the government is aiming to achieve. Continued exploitation exceeding sustainable limits not only puts fish populations at risk, but also everything that relies on them, including marine ecosystems and the fishing industry itself. It is time for the UK to show political leadership in sustainable fisheries both domestically and in international negotiations on shared stocks.

Set catch limits that do not exceed the scientific advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Ideally, these catches should remain well below this upper limit to account for wider ecosystem, climate change, discard and bycatch issues.
Develop a clear and ambitious strategy to end overfishing, deliver sustainable fisheries for future generations, and meet the precautionary objective, as well as providing a timeframe to achieve it.
Fully implement the fisheries act fisheries objectives, including ensuring that all Fisheries Management Plans contain clear measures, targets and a timeframe to achieve the Fisheries Act objectives.
Ensure that fishing opportunities for mixed fisheries are consistent with sustainable exploitation of the most depleted stocks.
Ensure a high standard of sustainability, transparency and legality of fisheries is met when granting reciprocal access to waters and resources.
Phase out non-selective, carbon intensive and destructive fishing practices (especially bottom-towed fishing gear) in all marine protected areas and an inshore zone within three nautical miles of the coast.

Beware: often the UK government quotes how in the UK’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies they have introduced massive marine areas, covering 6,805,586 square kilometres, making the UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) the fifth largest in the world, not including British Antarctic Territory. They praise themselves. Most have some form of marine protected areas, although with such vast areas of ocean to protect, it means that some of these areas are open to illegal and unregulated fishing, which is a challenge. For example, the EEZ of the 4 Pitcairn Islands, with a population of around 40 residing on Pitcairn Island, spans a vast area of ocean of about 836,000 km2, more than three times the size of the UK. The Chagos Archipelago, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, covers an area of 550,000 km2.

So why I ask myself are UK home waters not well protected with MPAs, HMPAs, with good management plans in place? Scotland is especially way behind in safeguarding marine ecosystems, so how lucky we are on Arran with Lamlash No Take Zone, now 15 years “old” and recovering well, and South Arran MPA, both under the watchful eye of COAST.

Sally Campbell
October 2023