Last Friday, delegates concluded the third round of treaty negotiations on the conservation and sustainable use of high seas marine biodiversity, the living resources in the 130 million square kilometers of ocean that lay beyond any country’s jurisdiction. At stake are four issues related to the high seas, including how we assess the environmental impact of commercial projects like deep sea mining; ensure the equitable use of high seas genetic resources; provide technical capacity to developing states; and establish high seas marine protected areas (MPAs). Each topic is complicated. But the fourth—the establishment of a system of high seas MPAs—may, in the end, be most vexing.

Negotiating such a system is difficult because, while the long-term gains will be great, some vested interests will feel the short-term losses more than others. Nevertheless, the scientific case for such a system is overwhelming; the high seas need protected areas to be resilient in the face of climate change and resource exploitation. But there is a risk that, if unplanned for, the unintended consequences of protected area development could negatively impact maritime security concerns in ways that undermine the protected area system’s effectiveness. Thus, treaty negotiators laying the groundwork for a high seas protected area system must thread an environmental security needle, balancing sound, science-based conservation with forthright engagement of geopolitical realities.

The Need for a Treaty

Open ocean ecosystems are both enormous and enormously complex. They support a wealth of biodiversity and associated services so integral that they underpin everything from the very air we breathe to fisheries that feed a third of the world. Yet most of this vast area is effectively ungoverned, existing in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), known more simply as the high seas.

Since 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has called for high seas resources to be managed collectively and sustainably. A number of subsidiary agreements, most notably the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement have sought to lay out frameworks for doing just this. Unfortunately, these agreements share many of the same challenges faced at the national level in constructing coherent ocean policy—a focus on single sector management, competing equities, and, increasingly, overriding geopolitical and security concerns. These factors make it difficult to effectively manage individual fish stocks let alone meet broader goals supporting ecosystem health and biodiversity conservation.

To meet these loftier needs, in 2017 the UN established an intergovernmental conference to negotiate the first binding multilateral treaty focused on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity. Last week’s negotiations were the third of four sessions tasked with hashing that treaty out.

There is a clear need for the comprehensive ocean conservation measures, including high seas marine protected areas, that the treaty will hopefully provide. MPAs provide direct benefits to fisheries management and secure the multitude of ocean resources and ecosystem functions beyond just fish stocks. The value of such protection is great enough that some scientists have called for a complete moratorium on high seas fishing. And while such a moratorium is unlikely, momentum toward implementing conservation guardrails is increasing. The ongoing negotiations over a treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) therefore present a critical opportunity to build a system of high seas marine protected areas.

The Argument for High Seas Fisheries Closures

Advocates of a high seas fishing moratorium point out that ABNJ fisheries just don’t provide many fish. It is true that wild caught fisheries support billions of people globally, but relatively few of those fish come from the high seas. In fact, ABNJ fisheries contribute between 4 and 12 percent of global marine catch by weight and a similar figure by value. Moreover, it has been argued that their closure would increase catch within EEZs as more abundant high seas stocks spilled over into national waters.

Supporters add that a moratorium would reduce fisheries inequality, both because high seas-caught fish overwhelmingly supply high-end markets and because 97 percent of trackable, industrial high seas fishing is undertaken by boats flagged to wealthy nations. One study estimates a closure would decrease inequality in the distribution of fisheries benefits among maritime nations by 50 percent.

Proponents also highlight the association between high seas fisheries and transshipment—the practice of transferring catch between vessels at sea. Thirty-five percent of all transshipment takes places on the high seas even though high seas fisheries supply only 4 to 12 percent of catch. Fishing boats that transship catch don’t ever need to come into port, the place where state law enforcement officials are most able to monitor vessel activities. Transshipment therefore enables IUU fishing, forced labor, and weapon and drug trafficking, activities that degrade ocean health and fuel insecurity.

Finally, moratorium advocates draw attention to the unprofitability of high seas fisheries. States prop up high seas fishing fleets with $4.2 billion in annual subsidies. Without that padding, 54 percent of high seas fisheries would be unprofitable. Conservationists rightly assert that the massive overcapacity created by subsidized fleets drives captains to fish unsustainably and engage in illicit activities like IUU fishing and smuggling to make a profit.

The Security Implications of High Seas Protected Areas

However, a full high seas closure—and even a more modest system of protected areas—would create losers alongside winners, a reality ABNJ treaty negotiators are grappling with. To be sure, high seas fisheries may collectively be money-losers, but they are far from the only heavily subsidized food-related industry, and they often still act as economic engines at local or regional scales.

Perhaps more importantly, high seas fishing fleets are increasingly embedded in both internal politics and international relations; they serve domestic political ends, bolster national prestige, and function as tools of power abroad. For example, China has used its heavily subsidized fishing fleet [PM2] in the South China Sea to advance its territorial claims there. It is also deriving economic and diplomatic benefit from dominating fishery resources in other parts of the world.

Losses from reduced high seas fishing would be concentrated in five wealthy states that together account for 64 percent of global high seas fishing revenue: China (21 percent), Taiwan (13 percent), Japan (11 percent), South Korea (11 percent), and Spain (8 percent). China and South Korea are especially reliant on high seas fishing; fish from outside their EEZs comprise 39 percent and 45 percent of their respective national catch, though some of that comes from other states’ EEZs. Were a full moratorium to be enacted, the fishing industries in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea would each lose over $800 million in revenue per year.

The reality that limits on high seas fishing will negatively impact existing equities should not be a deterrent to establishing such limits, but planning for the consequences of such impacts is a must. This is especially true when those impacts raise security concerns. One significant concern is that wealthy countries benefiting from high seas fishing will redirect their fleets into the EEZs of weak, chaotic states rather than go through the painful process of decapitalizing their distant water fleets. That dynamic is already playing out in Guinea, where Chinese boats account for 80 percent of industrial fishing activity. And artisanal West African fishermen displaced by industrial fleets are partly behind a rise in West African piracy.

The rule breaking tendencies of some distant water[PM3] fishing nations further fuel concerns that such actors will use non-traditional, potentially dangerous tactics to support their distant water fishing fleets. China’s use of its “maritime militia” to bully competing South China Sea fishers shows the country’s willingness to bend rules to achieve its fisheries needs.

It is worth examining fishing in Somalia, the archetypal weak state, to understand how encroachment into national EEZs elsewhere might play out elsewhere. In 2013, Somali fishermen secured just 19 percent of catch from Somalia’s EEZ. Foreign boats landed the rest. In some cases, they did so by openly violating international laws. But often, they obtained one-sided fisheries agreements by bribing corrupt officials, negotiating with local powerbrokers, or exploiting semi-legal loopholes. In one case, South Korean bottom trawlers circumvented Somali law by securing licenses from Puntland, an unrecognized state in Somalia’s northeast. The prevalence of distant water fishing in Somalia has fueled resentment among Somali fishermen, 60 percent of whom report seeing foreign vessels daily. And as in West Africa, shrinking local catches have driven fishermen to piracy and fueled conflict between local and foreign boats.

A moratorium barring distant water fishing states from the high seas could make the kinds of EEZ incursions that weak states like Somalia and Guinea already face more frequent. And by fueling corruption, hunger, and resentment, those incursions could raise new security threats, including domestic instability, piracy, and conflict between local and foreign fishermen.

The Next Steps

These security concerns should by no means prevent negotiators from building a system of high seas protected areas. The benefits flowing from well-crafted marine protected areas—healthier fish stocks, more resilient ecosystems, less transshipment and associated crimes—make a high seas MPA system an essential component of sustainable ocean governance. But delegates in the final round of negotiations need to be cognizant of the secondary and tertiary challenges associated with this system as they seek to build the most robust system possible to the benefit of all humankind.