After two decades of discussions, nearly 200 countries have agreed to a legally-binding “high seas treaty” to protect marine life in international waters.
After two decades of discussions, nearly 200 countries have agreed to a legally-binding “high seas treaty” to protect marine life in international waters, which cover around half of the planet’s surface but have long been essentially lawless. The agreement was signed on Saturday evening after two weeks of negotiations at the United Nations headquarters in New York ended in a mammoth final session of more than 36 hours. The treaty provides legal tools to establish and manage marine protected areas – sanctuaries to protect the ocean’s biodiversity, as well as environmental assessments to evaluate the potential damage of commercial activities, such as deep sea mining, before they start and a pledge by signatories to share ocean resources.
The high seas are sometimes called the world’s last true wilderness and make up more than 60% of the world’s oceans by surface area. These waters provide the habitat for a wealth of unique species and ecosystems, support global fisheries on which billions of people rely and are a crucial buffer against the climate crisis – the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the world’s excess heat over the last decades, per CNN. Yet they are also highly vulnerable. Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise rapidly and acidic waters threaten marine life, while human activity on the ocean adds pressure, including industrial fishing, shipping, the nascent deep sea mining industry and the race to harness the ocean’s “genetic resources” – material from marine plants and animals for use in industries such as pharmaceuticals.
Currently, there are no comprehensive regulations for the protection of marine life in this area and rules that do exist are piecemeal, fragmented and weakly enforced, meaning activities on the high seas are often unregulated and insufficiently monitored, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. As per ScienceDirect, only 1.2% of international waters are protected and only 0.8% are identified as “highly protected.”
The new oceans treaty aims to fill those gaps by providing the legal force to create and manage marine protected areas in international waters. Experts say this will be vital for meeting global biodiversity pledges that nations made at COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, in December.
According to High Seas Alliance, the agreement of the oceans treaty marks a process that started around two decades ago when in 2004, the UN set up an ad hoc group to discuss ocean protection. It wasn’t until 2015 that the organization adopted a resolution to develop a binding oceans treaty and after years of preparatory talks, negotiations began in earnest in 2018. Many had hoped that 2022 would be the breakthrough, but the conversation in August – the second round that year – failed. These latest negotiations were billed as a final chance for the world’s oceans with major sticking points, including nailing down the processes for creating marine protected areas and ensuring costs and benefits were shared equitably. But after a grueling final session, the talks ended late Saturday night with an agreement.
Now, countries have to formally adopt and ratify the treaty, after that the work will start to implement the marine sanctuaries and attempt to meet the target of protecting 30% of global oceans by 2030. “We have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent,” said Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic. “If we want the high seas to be healthy for the next century we have to modernize this system – now. And this is our one, and potentially only, a chance to do that. And time is urgent. Climate change is about to rain down hellfire on our ocean,” said Douglas McCauley, professor of ocean science at the University of California Santa Barbara.