UN High Seas Treaty Will Need Satellite Enforcement

 UN High Seas Treaty Will Need Satellite Enforcement

Earlier this week, global negotiations concluded on the landmark “Treaty of the High Seas” to protect the ocean, tackle environmental degradation, fight climate change, and prevent biodiversity loss.

The new treaty will allow to establish large-scale marine protected areas on the high seas, to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030. For the first time, the treaty will require assessing the impact of economic activities on high seas biodiversity. Developing countries will be supported in their participation in and implementation of the new treaty by a strong capacity-building and marine technology transfer component, funded from a variety of public and private sources and by an equitable mechanism for sharing the potential benefits of marine genetic resources.

Of course the immediate question is how to enforce a treaty that covers international waters, outside national jurisdictions, and quite literally outside the view of any existing enforcement entities. It seems obvious that satellite observation will play a critical role in monitoring this important agreement. The satellite industry is yet to comment on how it will pick up this critically important role.

‘The Ship Has Reached the Shore’, Conference President Rena Lee announces, as the Intergovernmental Conference Concludes a Historic New Maritime Biodiversity Treaty (image: UN)

A Victory for Multilateralism

This ‘Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction’ (BBNJ) treaty, agreed on March 3rd at the 5th Intergovernmental Conference in New York, is the fruit of more than a decade of global engagement to find solutions for this crucial global environmental issue.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commented: “This breakthrough — which covers nearly two thirds of the ocean — marks the culmination of nearly two decades of work and builds on the legacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health — now and for generations to come. It is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.”

Role of the European Union

The EU and its Member States have been leading the BBNJ High Ambition Coalition which played a key role in reaching the agreement. The coalition gathers 52 countries which are committed, at the highest political level, to achieve ambitious actions for the protection of the ocean. It was launched at the One Ocean Summit 2022 in Brest by President von der Leyen together with the French Presidency of the Council.

Now that the negotiations are over, the Agreement shall enter into force once 60 States will have ratified. The EU will work to ensure this happens rapidly and to help developing countries prepare for its implementation. To this end, the EU has pledged €40 million as part of a Global Ocean Programme and has invited members of the High Ambition Coalition to do the same within their capabilities.

Greenpeace: A Monumental Win for Ocean Protection

In a statement after the agreement, Greenpeace commented that “This Treaty is a monumental win for ocean protection, and an important sign that multilateralism still works in an increasingly divided world.”

Dr. Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner, Greenpeace Nordic, said from New York: “This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics. We praise countries for seeking compromises, putting aside differences and delivering a Treaty that will let us protect the oceans, build our resilience to climate change and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.”

“We can now finally move from talk to real change at sea. Countries must formally adopt the Treaty and ratify it as quickly as possible to bring it into force, and then deliver the fully protected ocean sanctuaries our planet needs. The clock is still ticking to deliver 30×30. We have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent.”

Greenpeace USA activists project a message reading “Protect The Oceans” onto the United Nations HQ, to send a clear message to delegates at the United Nations in New York during the second week of the IGC5 negotiations. Without a strong Treaty being agreed at this round of talks, it will be practically impossible to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. This is the minimum scientists say is necessary to allow the oceans to recover from decades of pollution, overfishing, and other industrial activities. (Image: Greenpeace)

WWF: This is not a finish line

In an online statement, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says it “warmly welcomes the agreement in principle by nations to a High Seas Treaty, which provides a legal framework for conserving marine life and restraining harmful activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

Jessica Battle, WWF Senior Global Ocean Governance and Policy Expert, who led WWF’s team at the treaty negotiations, said: “Ocean advocates worldwide can savour this moment years in the making.

“But this is not a finish line. For the treaty’s good intentions to deliver results on the water, we’ve got to keep the pressure up.

“Once technicalities are worked out and the treaty is adopted, it needs to enter into force so that it can be put to work – all countries must quickly formally sign and ratify it into their own national legislation. Words matter, but our ocean needs action.”

UN High Seas Treaty
Protecting biodiversity in the world’s high seas is one of the key objectives of the new treaty (photo: Freepik)

Satellite technology and big data to enforce marine protection

The question on everyone’s mind right now is how to enforce this new historic treaty.

This question has been discussed as soon as negotiations started decades ago. In an interesting article in Yale Envrironment 360 in 2016, professor of marine biology Douglas McAuley said: “With new marine protected areas and an emerging U.N. treaty, global ocean conservation efforts are on the verge of a major advance. But to enforce these ambitious initiatives, new satellite-based technologies and newly available online data must be harnessed.”

In the article he paints a picture of the scale of the challenge: “The [] United Nations high seas treaty would be setting new rules for a swath of the ocean 22 times larger than the United States. These new regulations are focused on preserving marine biodiversity, establishing international ocean reserves, evaluating processes for sharing marine genetic resources, and effectively carrying out environmental impact assessments.”

In the absence of systems to monitor boundaries, large marine protected areas will be nothing more than huge paper parks.

Prof. Douglas McAuley

“Orbiting in space alongside [] ship-tracking satellites is a rapidly growing fleet of nanosatellites that constantly take high-resolution pictures of the earth. This technology promises to be an important additional piece in the ocean-observation puzzle. The goal of the groups tending to these flocks of tiny electronic eyes is to be able to take a high-resolution snapshot of the entire earth, every day. These new imaging satellites may soon allow marine ecologists, ocean conservation groups, and marine park managers to begin to search in near real-time for ships in protected areas, to monitor weekly (even daily) losses of coastal mangrove forests, and to document abuses to coral reefs, such as dredging.

The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich (S6MF) is a radar altimeter satellite developed in partnership between several European and American organizations (image: ESA)

With foresight, the intelligence derived from the vessel tracking systems may eventually be interlinked with these imaging satellites to enable them to function like space-based red light cameras that snap pictures of law breaking at sea as it happens.”

Imaging satellites can function like space-based red light cameras that snap pictures of law-breakers at sea.

Prof. Douglas McAuley

Role for Copernicus Marine Services?

Although there is no official statements on the High Seas Treaty by any of the the European Union space programme representatives yet, it would make sense for the Copernicus programme to assume a key role in monitoring this treaty. Especially the Copernicus Marine Service contains lots of elements needed for ocean monitoring.

Satellites have been used to observe the ocean since the 1970s. The European Earth observation programme, Copernicus, uses data from two different groups of missions, the dedicated set of Sentinel satellites and around 30 contributing missions from national, European and international organisations to deliver a set of six themed services. The Copernicus Marine Service is one of those six and the satellite-based instruments listed here are the main operational instruments currently used in Copernicus Marine Service products. Even more satellite observations are used by the Copernicus Marine Service, for climatology, reanalysis and validation purposes, from past missions or from satellites that do not deliver data in real-time.

Digital Twin of the Ocean

Another important technology to support enforcement of the new treaty could be found in digital twins of the ocean, like the Iliad Project, where Groundstation.Space is one of the consortium partners.

Iliad Digital Twin of the Ocean
Iliad Digital Twin of the Ocean (image: Freepik)


The new High Seas Treaty is an historic breakthrough in marine protection, with all the positive effects on biodiversity, climate change, water quality, pollution, fishing and long term conservation. However, these effects can only be achieved if an effective enforcement system can be put into place. Satellites can play a key role in this enforcement system and satellite operators and space data solution providers should step up to this opportunity. We hope to see official statements of support from these organisations soon.

Also read: 8 methods for ocean monitoring

Remco Timmermans

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