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Commentary: The need for a Singapore 'Blue Plan' to help protect the world's high seas

A new treaty agreed on by countries earlier this month could pave the way for better protection of the high seas, which lie beyond 200 nautical miles (370km) from any nation’s coastline. 

A banner displayed before the United Nations headquarters during ongoing negotiations on a treaty to protect the high seas in New York on Feb 27, 2023.

A banner displayed before the United Nations headquarters during ongoing negotiations on a treaty to protect the high seas in New York on Feb 27, 2023.

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A new treaty agreed on by countries earlier this month could pave the way for better protection of the high seas, which lie beyond 200 nautical miles (370km) from any nation’s coastline. 

Currently, more than 60 per cent of the ocean falls outside the national jurisdiction of individual countries, and of this, only 1 per cent has been protected. 

The agreement on the conservation of biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions has four key focus areas, including:

  • Paving the way for marine protected areas to be established outside of national borders
  • Setting guidelines for how benefits from marine genetic resources should be shared
  • Providing guidance for when and how environmental impact assessments should be done
  • Developing measures to facilitate the exchange of data, expertise, and technology 

There are still some ways to go before the treaty goes into effect, as it still needs to be formally adopted and ratified by a sufficient number of countries to be legally enforceable. 

But the establishment of the High Seas Treaty will mean a few things for Singapore. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said following the agreement: “Oceans are critical to island states like us.” 

The ocean has a great influence on the very existence of a small island state like Singapore, but beyond that, the new treaty could also represent new opportunities and risks for the country.


Singapore has commercial interests in the deep sea, which could be affected by the new treaty.

Ocean Mineral Singapore, a subsidiary of Keppel Offshore and Marine, is one of 22 firms that hold contracts for the exploration of polymetallic nodules and other minerals in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, according to the website of the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

Deep sea mining has come under the spotlight amid the growing urgency to tackle the climate crisis by using minerals on the seafloor for electric vehicles, renewable energy technology and other innovations that can accelerate the green transition. 

But conservationists argue that not enough is known about the biodiversity of the deep seas and how such mining nodules would affect the wildlife and marine environment. 

Deep sea mining in waters beyond national jurisdictions is regulated by the ISA, another United Nations body, which also sets regulations and recommendations for environmental impact assessments for deep sea mining. 

Dr Youna Lyons, a visiting associate professor with the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law who focuses on marine governance in Southeast Asia, said there is a mosaic of multilateral organisations that oversee different aspects of ocean governance. 

The new treaty and its Conference of the Parties — its decision-making body — will have to navigate the minefield of other regulations and jurisdictions of the other organisations to conserve marine biodiversity of the high seas, Dr Lyons said. 

For example, the new treaty has a provision to screen planned activities for effects that “are unknown or poorly understood”, and subject these activities to stringent environmental impact assessment requirements. 

But this will not apply to activities already regulated by existing bodies, such as deep sea mining, Dr Lyons said. 

Still, the new treaty could have an influence in ongoing ISA negotiations of a mining code due in July 2023 that will set rules under which companies will be allowed to extract minerals from the seabed.

Given Singapore’s commercial interests in this area, this is something that warrants watching. 


The new treaty also has an emphasis on getting more countries, especially developing nations, involved in the marine sciences by facilitating the sharing of research results and the development of technical, scientific and research and development programmes, among other measures.

Much of the scientific work in the marine sciences is currently led by developed countries, but the new treaty will provide a platform and opportunity for Singapore and institutions, such as the St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory and the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute to play a greater role in this area. 

This participation is key, given that the fate of the oceans are intimately intertwined with the economies and societies of countries surrounded by sea, such as maritime Southeast Asia and the Pacific Island countries. 

In 2018, Indonesia and Singapore also collaborated on a deep sea expedition off the southern coast of Java, in which they uncovered 27 species new to science. 

Such studies are important, given that the oceans are home to a treasure trove of wildlife whose genes hold secrets that could pave the way for new innovations.

Biodiversity aside, there is scope for greater Singapore and Southeast Asian-led research into other aspects of the ocean sciences. 

For example, biological oceanography — the study of how the ocean’s plants and animals interact with the marine environment — could help to provide policy-relevant insights on various issues.

These include the management of calcifying marine biodiversity such as clams and mussels in the face of ocean acidification and the management of aquaculture farms and fisheries in tropical seas. 


The agreement on the text for the High Seas Treaty comes after over 15 years of negotiations, and helps to focus attention on the role of the oceans at a time where there is growing interest and recognition of tackling the two planetary crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. 

But the treaty also highlights certain overlaps in the way various sectors are using the sea, whether for passage (shipping), food (fisheries and aquaculture) or other resources (marine biodiversity or deep sea mining).

This also reflects the trade-offs that Singapore faces in the management of its own blue spaces, and its interests in other oceanic issues. 

Shipping issues are handled by the Maritime and Port Authority, while the National Parks Board governs and manages the nation’s coastal and marine biodiversity.

National water agency PUB is also the coastal protection agency, whereas plastic pollution is an issue that the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment is keeping an eye on. 

Meanwhile, the opening up of new shipping routes in the Arctic due to melting sea ice is an area that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is watching. 

It is timely for Singapore to consider a national blue spaces management plan, similar to the country’s Green Plan 2030 which brings together various agencies to chart a pathway for the Republic to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. 

Similarly, there needs to be such oversight on how different agencies are interacting with one another over governance of Singapore’s blue spaces. 

This could include, for example, looking at how plans to boost food security in Singapore through the development of more aquaculture farms can be done in a way that will reduce environmental impact on marine biodiversity; or how coastal protection efforts can incorporate nature-based solutions. 

Such considerations are important given that the new treaty also considers the “cumulative impacts” of activities on the high seas — including how the impacts of activities within national jurisdictions could impact biodiversity outside of national boundaries. 

The high seas may sometimes seem far removed for many societies. But if left unmanaged, they could bear the brunt of oceanic neglect, with repercussions for humans. 

After all, the oceans of the world are all connected, and tides ebb and flow, irrespective of the boundaries carved up by men. 



Audrey Tan is the science communications and outreach lead at the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute and Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions. A former environment journalist of 10 years, she holds a masters degree in climate science and policy from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

Related topics

oceans ocean conservancy rising sea levels biodiversity PUB

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