The countries agree on a historic ocean treaty to protect the high seas


Nearly 200 countries have agreed on a legally binding treaty to protect marine life in international waters, which cover about half the Earth’s surface but have long been essentially lawless.

The deal was signed on Saturday night after two weeks of negotiations at the United Nations headquarters in New York ended in a mammoth final session lasting more than 36 hours – but it has taken two decades.

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

“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, conservation of nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” said Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic, in a statement.

The high seas are sometimes referred to as the world’s last true wilderness. This vast expanse of water – anything that lies 200 nautical miles outside of countries’ territorial waters – makes up more than 60% of the world’s oceans by area.

These waters provide habitat for a wealth of unique species and ecosystems, support the global fisheries that billions of people depend on, and are a critical buffer against the climate crisis — the oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the world’s excess heat over the past few decades world absorbed .

But they are also very vulnerable. Climate change is increasing sea temperatures and increasingly acidic water is threatening marine life.

Human activities on the oceans are increasing pressures, including industrial fishing, shipping, the burgeoning 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.

“There is currently no comprehensive marine life protection regulation in this area,” Liz Karan, oceans project director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told CNN.

Existing rules are piecemeal, fragmented and weakly enforced, meaning activities on the high seas are often unregulated and poorly monitored, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

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

“Between the pieces of the puzzle are vast unmanaged habitats. 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 agreement aims to fill these gaps by providing legal force to create and manage marine protected areas in international waters. Experts say this will be crucial to fulfilling the global biodiversity pledges made by nations at COP15, the UN conference on biodiversity in Montreal in December.

A successful treaty “will help us meet our goal of conserving or protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030,” Monica Medina, U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, told via email CNN.

The high seas are home to unique species and ecosystems.

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

As early as 2004, the UN set up an ad hoc group to discuss marine protection. It was only in 2015 that the organization passed a resolution to draft a binding ocean agreement, and after years of preparatory talks, serious negotiations began in 2018.

“It’s been a long arc from the first time the question was asked to where we are now,” Karan said.

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

These recent negotiations have been billed as a last chance for the world’s oceans.

There were points during the negotiations where some feared an agreement would never be reached as conflict threatened to derail talks. “It was a bit of a roller coaster ride,” Karan said.

One of the biggest sticking points has been defining the processes for creating marine protected areas and ensuring a fair sharing of costs and benefits – especially since many developing countries may not have the technology or capacity to conduct their own scientific exploration of the high seas.

However, after a grueling final meeting, talks ended with an agreement late on Saturday evening.

“We commend countries for seeking compromise, putting differences aside and forging a treaty that enables us to protect the oceans, build our resilience to climate change, and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people ‘ Greenpeace’s Meller said.

The countries must now formally accept and ratify the treaty. Then it will start implementing the marine protected areas and try to reach the goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. “We’ve got half a decade left and we can’t be complacent,” Meller said.

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

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