Ocean treaty, last chance to protect the high seas?

Negotiators aim to agree on a legal framework to protect international waters that are essential to “life as we know it”.

The world has a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to protect the high seas from exploitation, scientists and conservationists have warned, as negotiators meet at UN headquarters in New York this week to hammer out a new treaty on the oceans.

A scientist has described the treaty, which will establish a legal framework to protect biodiversity and govern the high seas, as the most important ocean protection agreement in four decades.

“It is extremely important that this happens now,” said Professor Alex Rogers, scientific director of Rev Ocean, an ocean research NGO. “We continue to see the industrialization of areas beyond national borders, including distant water fishing and potentially deep sea mining.”

Much of the ocean, 64% of the surface, lies outside the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) which cover approximately 200 nautical miles from the coasts of individual states. Known as the high seas, they are home to a wide range of ecosystems and species, many of which are insufficiently studied and cataloged. The increasing reach of shipping vessels, seabed mining and new activities such as ‘bioprospecting’ for marine species have exposed the high seas and its biodiversity to increasing risk of exploitation.


Rights on the high seas

A group of 50 countries have signed up to the 30×30 coalition, which was launched in January 2021 and aims to protect 30% of the planet’s land and seas by 2030. no legal value. base on the high seas.

Currently, all countries have the right to navigate, fish and conduct scientific research on the high seas with few restrictions. Only 1.2% of this marine area is protected.

Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, a researcher at Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Center who has quantified growing human pressures on the marine environment, describes a “blue acceleration”, or race for resources, over the past two or three decades. “You have an ocean race in all these different sectors, but there’s no big picture.”

“One of the misconceptions about the open sea is that you have this big empty space. The other is that it’s calm space. Both are wrong,” said Doug McCauley, associate professor of ocean science at the Benioff Ocean Initiative of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“By all indicators, he is busier than ever. Maritime transport has increased by 1,600% since 1982, when the Unclos was signed [la ley del mar de la ONU]. Industrial fishing is moving further and further away from the coasts and more than 55% of the ocean is fished. There is a new interest in offshore oil and gas. And there is the threat of deep sea mining.”

McCauley contributed to an article for the Pew Charitable Trusts that highlights 10 high seas biodiversity hotspots that would benefit from protection. They include the Costa Rica Dome, nutrient-rich waters that attract endangered yellowfin tuna, migrating dolphins, blue whales and leatherback turtles, and the Emperor Seamount Range, which s extends northwest from the Hawaiian Islands to Russia, a series of seamounts very rich in biodiversity.

How to protect international waters

The paper concludes that although a patchwork of international bodies and treaties manage resources and human activity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including fishing, whaling, shipping and deep sea mining, their mandates vary widely and their jurisdictions often overlap. This piecemeal approach “leads to degradation of the environment and its resources”, according to the newspaper. It also makes the creation of marine protected areas a legal challenge.

“The treaty won’t create hotspot protections, but hopefully it will create a framework for us to create international parks for the first time,” McCauley said. “It’s a starting point and a very important starting point.”

Peggy Kalas of the High Seas Alliance said: “After decades of negotiation and planning, the world has a unique opportunity to protect an environment that supports life as we know it.

“It’s hard to overstate how crucial these talks are to the world’s multi-trillion dollar ocean economy, a vital food source for billions of people and perhaps the best protection the planet has against climate change. .”

However, NGOs have raised concerns about being excluded from negotiations this week, after the UN restricted entry to delegates and intergovernmental organizations due to Covid.

Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace, which has long campaigned for a network of ocean sanctuaries, said it sets a worrying precedent. “These negotiations are simply too important to avoid scrutiny; The UN must reconsider its decision and allow civil society to participate in a safe and meaningful way.

The United Nations General Assembly voted on December 24, 2017 to convene a multi-year process to develop a treaty on “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction”.

Three of the planned negotiations have taken place. The fourth and final set, previously scheduled for March 2020 but postponed due to Covid, now takes place March 7-18 at UN Headquarters in New York.

The draft treaty addresses four key areas: marine genetic resources; area management tools, including marine protected areas; environmental impact assessments and capacity building; and marine technology transfer.

Last month, at the One Ocean Summit in Brest, France, more than 100 countries, including the UK and 27 EU members, agreed to reach a strong and robust UN High Seas Treaty, giving the talks a strong political impetus.

By Karen McVeigh. Articles in English

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