Protecting the High Seas and the Blue Highways for Migrating Humpback Whales

March 9, 2023

For many species of the great whales: blues, fins, humpbacks and sperm whales; the super highway of their migration routes takes them across entire the high seas where they are vulnerable to the lack of governance in protecting over 60% of the world’s oceans.
Photo credit: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

I applaud the nearly 200 world leaders of the United Nation’s member states for reaching the historic High Seas Treaty this past Saturday March 4, 2023. After many years of negotiating, I am so grateful to learn of this recent news.  This is the first-ever international treaty to protect the ocean.

The High Seas Treaty is a crucial step forward in protecting the rich diversity of marine life found in the high seas.  This monumental agreement will help in achieving the global goal of protecting 30 percent of the world's oceans.  This Treaty will create vast marine protected areas (MPA’s) ensuring the protection of biodiversity of the world’s oceans against the loss of wildlife. This will safeguard marine ecosystems and allow for their recovery by 2030.

We share this fascinating water planet with millions of species and billons of individuals, each with their own ecological story, many contributing to the stability of their surroundings and all connected in a complex web of life. It is an amazing wonder to behold, our wild biodiverse world.  Yet it is so easy to take for granted especially when the largest living space on the planet is below the surface of the sea.
I am soon to travel back to the leeward waters of Maui where the largest populations of humpback whales in the North Pacific congregate to breed and give birth in the winter and spring months.  They arrive to the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary from their feeding grounds in the waters off of Southeast Alaska, over 3000 miles away.  This stock, or population of over 10,000 humpbacks is the healthiest of the five different populations of humpbacks in the North Pacific.  These whales were brought to the brink of extinction in just the last 100 years but have thrived in recent decades because of their international protection.  We do not hunt these whales for their blubber or meat today but yet we still kill tens of thousands of whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, and seabirds due to industrial fishing gear that cover our world’s oceans.  Much of this loss of ocean wildlife is happening in the High Seas where it is still considered the ‘wild west’ with unregulated and illegal fishing.
Beyond the horizon, more than 200 nautical miles from shore, where we find over 60 percent of the ocean that lies outside of any of a country’s ‘exclusive economic zone’ (EEZ), we find open-ocean and deep sea habitats harboring some of the largest reservoirs of ocean biodiversity.  This great global commons area, known as the High Seas, also provides migratory routes for whales, sharks, sea turtles, and seabirds.  Today less than 8 percent of the ocean is protected.  But with the new High Seas Treaty, a new UN regulating body and a legal framework will be put in place that will allow for the creation of new marine protected areas in the high seas. Within these soon to be newly designated MPAs, hopefully covering 30% of the high seas, fishing, mining and shipping will finally be regulated.
Bottom trawling is one of these most destructive activities taking place in the High Seas. These heavy, large nets rake over entire ocean bottom communities, killing everything in its path.  This relatively new fishing technique of deep sea bottom trawling, took off in the 1950s after many nations overfished their coastal waters and were forced further offshore, exploiting a new ocean ecosystem. These large fishing vessels have more robust gear of huge and very heavy nets and stronger cables that scrapes across miles and miles of deep sea habitats; flattening sea mounts, raking muddy plains and destroying ancient deep sea coral gardens.  This type of fishing is unselective and comes at a huge environmental cost to the loss of biodiversity. 

Jean-Michel Cousteau has travered the high seas for decades,  documenting the critical connection between humanity and the ocean's vital importance to the survival of all life on our planet. As a voice for the ocean, he inspires and educates audiences worldwide about the need to act responsibly and preserve the fragile underwater ecosystems that are so intricately tied to all life on earth.
Photo by ©Matthew Ferraro/ Ocean Futures Society


Unfortunately governments from around the world provide subsidies for industrial fishing’s massive destruction of the High Seas. This is not only a huge environmental cost to the loss of biodiversity but has a huge carbon footprint because of what it takes to support these massive and very costly fishing fleets.   On top of that, disturbing the deep sea habitats releases much of the long-stored carbon, some of which turns into carbon dioxide, and in return, increasing the impacts of ocean acidification and climate change.
There are clear and increasing signs that high-seas bottom-trawl fisheries are
causing unprecedented damage to some of the most vulnerable ecosystems on our
planet.    This very important High Seas treaty will not only ensure the meaningful protection of ocean life found in the High Seas but will aid in the health of the entire ocean. It will also be a key step towards moving the planet closer to the goal of protecting at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030, the minimum level of protection scientists recommend for a healthy ocean and sustainable fisheries.   If we get this right, it will enable us to scale up marine protected areas in all areas of the world’s oceans. This will in turn protect and enhance fisheries as well as protect valuable biodiversity and ensure healthy watery highways for migrating species, including humpback whales.
We must go from the less than 8 percent of the world’s oceans currently protected to 30 percent by 2030. This is what marine ecologists, and biologists believe is necessary if we want to continue harvesting marine wildlife from the sea.  We need to protect the capitol (nature); and live off the interest produced by that capitol if we want to ensure a sustainable future. By keeping intact open ocean habitats healthy, the services provided by nature will help mitigate the impacts of climate change too. 
The ocean needs us all to help in its recovery. Healthy oceans can help us with many other global threats, including extreme weather events, droughts, food shortages and global pandemics.  By putting in place the new regulations of the High Seas Treaty there will be the governance to manage and enforce these protected areas.  This treaty is key to ensure healthy oceans and the continued harvesting of wildlife from the high seas in sustainable fisheries.
I have witnessed much change in the oceans over the past eight decades, some changes for the better but many for the worse.  The good news is, time and again nature demonstrates how resilient she is when we give her a chance to recover.  We have enough scientific knowledge that demonstrates the key to sustainable fisheries management is more marine protected areas that will not only enhance biodiversity but provide a safe sanctuary for marine species to grow and reproduce and then spill over into areas for the benefit of sustainable fisheries.
Passing the High Seas treaty is a win/win for us all, people, ocean wildlife and nature.  Lets all be advocates of positive change and support our world leaders and thank them for taking action necessary to implement the High Seas Treaty.  Increased protection ensures the continued comeback of the great whales of the world, including humpbacks in the North Pacific.

Warm regards,


Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society

"Protect The Ocean And You Protect Yourself” — Jean-Michel Cousteau

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