Countries agree to historic ocean treaty to protect high seas


Nearly 200 countries have agreed to a legally binding treaty to protect marine life in international waters, which cover around half 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 that culminated in a mammoth final session lasting more than 36 hours – but it has been in the making for two decades.

The treaty provides legal tools to establish and manage marine protected areas – sanctuaries to protect the biodiversity of the ocean. It also covers environmental assessments to assess potential harm from commercial activities, such as deep-sea mining, before they begin and a commitment by signatories to share ocean resources.

“It’s a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, the protection of nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” said Laura Meller, ocean campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic, in a statement.

The high seas are sometimes called the world’s last true wilderness. This huge body of water – anything within 200 nautical miles beyond a country’s territorial waters – makes up more than 60% of the world’s oceans by area.

These waters provide habitat for a multitude of unique species and ecosystems, support global fisheries on which billions of people depend, and provide a crucial buffer against the climate crisis – the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the excessive global heat in recent decades. .

Yet they are also very vulnerable. Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise and increasingly acidic waters threatening marine life.

Human activity on the ocean is increasing pressure, including industrial fishing, shipping, the nascent deep-sea mining industry and the race to exploit 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,” Liz Karan, director of the oceans project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told CNN.

The rules that do exist are piecemeal, fragmented and weakly enforced, which means that activities on the high seas are often unregulated and insufficiently controlled, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

Only 1.2% of international waters are protected and only 0.8% are identified as “highly protected”.

“There are huge unmanaged habitat gaps between the pieces of the puzzle. It really is that bad out there,” Douglas McCauley, a professor of ocean science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told CNN.

The new ocean treaty aims to fill these gaps by providing the legal force needed to create and manage marine protected areas in international waters. Experts say this will be key to meeting the global biodiversity commitments nations made at COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December.

A successful treaty “will help us achieve the goal of conserving or protecting at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030,” Monica Medina, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Environmental Affairs, told CNN. and international scientists.

The high seas are home to unique species and ecosystems.

The ocean treaty agreement marks a process that began about two decades ago.

In 2004, the UN created an ad hoc group to discuss the protection of the oceans. It was not until 2015 that the organization passed a resolution to craft a binding oceans treaty and, after years of preparatory talks, negotiations began in earnest in 2018.

“It’s been a long arc from when the issue first came up, to where we are now,” Karan said.

Many had hoped 2022 would be the breakthrough, but the talks in August – the second round that year – ended in failure.

These latest negotiations have been presented as a last chance for the world’s oceans.

There were times during the negotiations when some feared a deal would never happen as disputes threatened to derail the talks. “It was kind of like a roller coaster ride,” Karan said.

Key sticking points included defining processes for establishing marine protected areas and ensuring equitable sharing of costs and benefits, especially as many developing countries may not have the technology or the ability to conduct their own scientific exploration on the high seas.

But after a grueling final session, the talks ended late Saturday night with an agreement.

“We commend countries for seeking compromises, putting aside differences, and reaching a treaty that will allow us to protect the oceans, build our resilience to climate change, and protect the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.” , said Meller of Greenpeace.

Countries must now formally adopt and ratify the treaty. Then work will begin to implement marine sanctuaries and try to reach the goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. “We have half a decade left and we cannot be complacent,” Meller said.

“If we want the high seas to be healthy for the next century, we need to modernize this system – now. And this is our one, and potentially only, chance to do so. And time is running out. Climate change is about to rain hellfire on our ocean,” McCauley said.


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