The high seas are among the largest biodiversity reservoirs on our planet — but surprisingly little is currently known about these vast areas. More people have ventured into outer space than to the deepest depths of our oceans. Only 0.0001 percent of the deep sea floor has been studied so far, and it is estimated that there are millions of species living there that are yet to be discovered.

Some might be surprised to learn that much of the life in our oceans — in fact, most ocean life lying outside the national marine boundaries set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS — is completely unprotected. These international waters represent nearly 50 percent of our planet’s surface area.

The UN is in the midst of a two-year process whose ultimate purpose is to safeguard marine biodiversity in international waters. If successful, these negotiations will lead to a new global agreement addressing this very large gap.

What does the process to develop a high seas agreement look like? How can people follow it and participate? Here’s an orientation, some current news, and a guide to staying informed.

Where do we begin?

Our story starts with the third meeting of something called (remember, this is a deep dive, so take a deep breath) “Preparatory Committee established by General Assembly resolution 69/292: Development of 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.”

Everyone calls it “BBNJ” for short, referring to “biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions.” More specifically, this refers to the bit of oceans that lies beyond the 200-mile “Exclusive Economic Zones” (EEZ) of coastal nations, comprising both the high seas and the sea floor below.

The meetings of the Preparatory Committee working on a draft of this new “binding instrument” (legal agreement) are called “PrepComs”. These PrepComs are attended by country delegations of the UN Member States, which come together to collectively decide on the elements that should go into an international legal agreement about the high seas.

What does the process look like?

The negotiation process happens in stages, with four PrepComs meeting in New York over a two-year period. At these meetings, negotiators decide on the content of a high seas agreement, after which an intergovermental conference — expected to take place in 2018 — convenes to adopt the new treaty. During these meetings, the delegates meet in informal working groups and plenary sessions structured around a specific topic.

Three PrepComs have been completed so far, with the last one scheduled for July 2017.

What happened at previous PrepComs?

At PrepCom 1, held from 28 March to 8 April 2016, delegates outlined their positions on the following topics previously determined by the BBNJ Working Group:

  • Marine genetic resources
  • Area-based management tools
  • Environmental impact assessments
  • Capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology
  • Scoping an international legally binding instrument (IILBI) — meaning determining the guiding approaches and principles for designing the IILBI, which will have the status of a treaty among nations

At PrepCom 2, held from 26 August to 9 September 2016, delegates identified areas of agreement as well as issues requiring further discussion. The found consensus on a few very general points, and so the lists of areas needing further discussion seemed dauntingly long.

So what happened during PrepCom 3?

Largely seen as a step forward, PrepCom 3 made progress on developing building blocks for the agreement. Each delegation contributed more detail on its vision of key content for the final treaty. PrepCom 3 concluded with the delegations requesting a report that would consolidate all their submissions into a draft set of recommendations for consideration at the final PrepCom.

What happens next?

PrepCom 4 will be held in July 2017 (shortly after the UN Ocean Conference, which could help give the BBNJ process a boost). The hope is that at this meeting, delegates will finalize the content of a legal agreement. Then, at the end of 2017, the world’s governments will make a decision on whether to recommend that the UN General Assembly hold a formal intergovernmental conference to adopt the IILBI.

How can I follow the process?

The entire negotiation process can be followed in detail at the website of Earth Negotiations Bulletin, with summaries and day-to-day analyses of the recent PrepCom 3 available here. You can also sign up for newsletters to stay informed by email.

Why is this potential agreement significant for SDG 14?

A global legal agreement on managing the high seas would be a historic landmark (or perhaps “seamark” fits better here). This agreement has the potential to address the “tragedy of the commons” problem by filling governance gaps to protect marine life in the high seas.

The political process within these PrepComs will ultimately determine the shape of any new instrument under the UN Law of the Sea treaty, which was adopted in 1982, and its long-term contribution to sustainable use of marine life in international waters.

What challenges lie ahead for a legal agreement on the high seas?

Key questions of jurisdiction still have to be answered. Who will have the ultimate decision-making power under the agreement? How effective will it be to add a new global layer in an already complex landscape of oceans governance?

Supporters of the new treaty see value in overarching global decision-making powers, to recognize marine protected areas set up by regional bodies, ensure compliance with global standards for marine biodiversity, as well as facilitate capacity building and benefit sharing for poorer countries.

At the other end of the spectrum, critics claim that decision-making should remain at a local or regional level and should not be subject to external effectiveness assessments. Some are fearful of the rigidity and slow response times that an extra level of bureaucracy may pose.

Thought the challenges are significant, we must come together, as a world, to find solutions for governing our ocean commons. Given our dependence on the oceans, as well as what we know about the impacts of climate change on the oceans and their critical role as a carbon sink and oxygen source, the sooner this agreement gets finalized and enters into force, the better.