Robert D Sluka
 on March 14, 2023

High Seas Treaty Opportunity for the Church to Lead

We are called to protect 100% of God’s planet, but often the oceans have been overlooked. The recent High Seas Treaty is an opportunity for us to do our part.

Digital image of ocean waves and cross in distant horizon in front of sun

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Followers of Christ are called to protect 100% of God’s planet, but too often in conservation and creation care work, the oceans have been neglected. An important new treaty that protects biodiversity in international waters has just been signed by delegates to the UN. This is an important step in recognizing the value of marine life. But it is not enough on its own to protect these creatures and the well-being of the planet. Will the church lead the way and model as God’s image bearers how we ought to care for corals, clams, crabs, and the rest of God’s creatures in the sea? Our history has not been great in this respect.

The Third Lausanne Congress of Christian leaders in Capetown finally recognized creation care as an important Christian issue alongside evangelism, social justice, and other traditional concerns. A subsequent meeting was convened in Jamaica to determine how to move ahead with creation care within the Lausanne Movement. It would be codified in the book “Creation Care and the Gospel” with no intentions of including anything on the ocean, despite the ocean occupying 71% of the surface and 99% of the habitable space of the planet. Thankfully, I was able to co-write a chapter with oceanographer Meric Srokosz; we knew the editors and convinced them of the shortcoming, and we were able to get our article included in the book.

Overlooking the ocean is not only found among creation care practitioners. It may seem ludicrous, but the majority of the ocean has little to no protection from human impacts until this new UN Treaty on the High Seas, passed on the 4th of March 2023. Why this neglect of the ocean?

Followers of Christ are called to protect 100% of God’s planet, but too often…the oceans have been neglected.

In 2015 I landed a hardship duty: traveling to beaches in the south of France to start a marine conservation project for A Rocha. A Rocha is a family of national organizations that seeks to love their local environment through the conservation of its species and habitats. We are attempting to live out God’s calling to care for creation ​and equip others to do likewise. We do this through nature conservation, church engagement, and environmental education.

My team of young scientists jumped into the project with gusto, both literally and figuratively. We learned about the Mediterranean Sea and had a hard time understanding why so few people could see the many threats and how much change human influence had caused in the Sea. We finally realized the problem was that most people only saw the surface of the sea which was beautiful, but most never put their head under the sea to notice that one out of every 17 marine species was invasive. They had never seen a European Pen Shell (Pinna nobilis), a gigantic marine clam-like creature that is home to over 140 other animals hiding within its shells, and so did not notice that there were almost no more. People could still order fresh seafood at local restaurants, and so they did not know of the extensive overfishing problems and the likelihood that their fish was not local. They also did not frequent the beaches at the mouth of the Rhone River which were covered in microplastics.

Underwater coral reefs, fish and other ocean life

The treaty does not do the actual conservation itself. The sea is just as imperiled today as it was yesterday. But there is a glimmer of hope.

Robert Sluka

Laws which govern a particular portion of the ocean are often made at a local or national level of jurisdiction. The United States government, for example, makes laws in its waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore. This is complicated by individual states having responsibility closer to shore, and in many cases local governments and even communities can regulate activities. However, about two thirds of the ocean is outside of these national boundaries giving rise to the general term to describe the life in these areas as Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (you will often see the acronym BBNJ to refer to this treaty or concept). This area has also come to be known as The High Seas. There are international treaties which cover these areas, but they were created some time ago and were developed in a different era with less concern for conservation and less understanding of our impact on the ocean. Hence the significance of the announcement that a High Seas Treaty had been agreed.

But will it matter? The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include specific reference to the ocean in Goal 14. A plastic treaty is in the works to try and combat international plastic pollution. The Biodiversity Conference of Parties meets regularly to negotiate issues related to biodiversity conservation, including the ocean. Many are cautiously hopeful. The High Seas Treaty could provide coverage and international agreement on a large portion of the ocean that isn’t effectively governed. It sets the stage for working together to protect areas that are common to all and owned by all or none, depending on your point of view. There is great excitement in the marine conservation twittersphere regarding the treaty, along with caution that this is just the beginning and the treaty merely sets the stage for how we move forward with high seas conservation. The treaty does not do the  actual conservation itself. The sea is just as imperiled today as it was yesterday. But there is a glimmer of hope.

The Halavi guitarfish (Glaucostegus halavi) is a curious creature. Is it a shark with a ray head or a ray with a shark body? Turns out it is the latter and it is also Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List—the standard means of assessing internationally threatened species. This means that they are one step away from extinction. This species makes its home near A Rocha’s field study center on the Kenyan coast. We seek to help this species flourish. In order to do that, we have to understand its biology, ecology, and movement patterns among other scientific characteristics. Science helps us to understand what this species needs to flourish and also to assist local communities that might fish for this species. Our holistic approach helps to heal broken relationships in creation, both human and guitarfish.

The High Seas Treaty could provide coverage and international agreement on a large portion of the ocean that isn’t effectively governed. It sets the stage for working together to protect areas that are common to all and yet owned by none…

A High Seas Treaty will not help the Halavi guitarfish, but the Watamu Marine National Park where we study and conserve it could. The areas of the Indian River Lagoon in Florida where A Rocha seeks the flourishing of thousands of marine species including the American Horseshoe Crab will not benefit from the treaty either. The ocean is a massive and diverse set of ecosystems. Local conservation which works with communities to protect species and habitats is necessary to conserve the breadth and depth of the ocean.

International treaties are an important component that can be used to work with governments, local communities, businesses, and NGOs to determine how to move forward globally so major issues that impact large areas, such as the high seas, can be tackled. The High Seas Treaty is good news, but we need to see how we can implement it and also if anything has been left out. You or your church can join us at A Rocha by volunteering, becoming a research partner, visiting one of our global centers, following our media, or donating to our conservation projects. Followers of Christ are called to protect 100% of God’s planet—Let’s do our part!

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About the author


Robert D Sluka

Dr Robert D Sluka leads A Rocha’s Marine Conservation Programme. He is a curious explorer, applying hopeful, optimistic and holistic solutions to all that is ailing our oceans and the communities that rely on them. Dabbling in theology, he writes on the interface between Christian faith and marine conservation. He has worked cross-culturally, living for extended periods in Australia, India, Great Britain and his native USA where he currently resides. Robert’s research focuses on marine biodiversity conservation, plastic pollution, and fisheries, particularly marine protected areas. The ultimate goal is to glorify God through oceans and communities being transformed using holistic marine conservation.