How important is the UN Ocean Treaty to saving marine life?

As negotiators meet this week at the United Nations headquarters in New York to hammer out a new ocean treaty, scientists and environmentalists have warned the world has a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to protect the high seas of operation.

(Photo: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The deal, which will provide a legal framework to safeguard biodiversity and control the high seas, has been dubbed “the most important ocean conservation deal in four decades” by an expert.


Professor Alex Rogers, scientific director of Rev Ocean, an ocean research NGO, believes this needs to happen immediately. They continued to witness industrialization in places outside national borders, such as deep-sea fishing and possibly deep-sea mining.


(Photo: SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images)

Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which extend about 200 nautical miles from the coasts of various governments, cover 64% of the ocean’s surface. The high seas are home to a diverse range of habitats and animals, many of which are under-studied and under-recorded. The increasing reach of shipping vessels, seabed mining and new activities such as “bioprospecting” for marine animals have increased the danger of exploitation of the high seas and its biodiversity.

The 30×30 alliance, which debuted in January 2021 and aims to safeguard 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030, has 50 member countries. However, these vaunted assurances will have little legal value on the high seas without an agreement.

status quo

Currently, all countries have a limited right to navigate, fish and conduct scientific studies on the high seas. This marine region is only 1.2% protected.

Over the past two or three decades, according to Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University who has assessed the growth of human pressures on the marine environment, there has been a “blue acceleration”, or race for resources. “There’s a race for the ocean in all of these diverse areas, but there’s no overall picture.”

He seems to be busier than he has ever been. Since 1982, when Unclos [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] was signed, shipments jumped 1,600%. More than 55% of the ocean is fished and industrial fishing is moving further and further from the shore. Offshore oil and gas is growing in popularity. There is also the threat of deep sea mining.

Also read: Scientists plan to store carbon in the depths of the ocean

Various studies

McCauley helped write a study for the Pew Charitable Trusts highlighting ten high seas biodiversity hotspots that could benefit from conservation. Costa Rica’s Dome – nutrient-rich seas that attract yellowfin tuna, migrating dolphins, endangered blue whales and leatherback turtles – and the Emperor’s Seamount Range, a sequence of seamounts very rich in biodiversity that extends northwest from the Hawaiian Islands to Russia.

While a patchwork of international bodies and treaties manage resources and human activity in areas beyond national jurisdiction – such as fishing, whaling, shipping and mining of the seabed – the mandates of these bodies and treaties vary widely and their jurisdictions frequently overlap, according to the papers. According to the study, this piecemeal approach “leads to deterioration of the ecosystem and its resources”. It also makes the establishment of marine protected areas difficult from a legal perspective.

After decades of debate and preparation, the world now has a unique chance to develop real protections for an ecosystem that supports life as we know it, according to Peggy Kalas of the High Seas Alliance.

On the other hand, NGOs have expressed their concern about being excluded from the talks this week after the access of local delegations from the UN and international organizations due to Covid.

According to Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace, this has set a troubling precedent, which has long advocated for a network of ocean sanctuaries. These talks are far too important to ignore; the UN should reconsider its decision and allow civil society to engage in a safe and meaningful way.

Previous decision

Hawaii braces for tsunami threat

(Photo: Photo by Marco Garcia/Getty Images)

On December 24, 2017, the United Nations General Assembly decided to launch a multi-year process to establish a convention on “the protection and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond the jurisdiction of the State”.

Three of the four scheduled meetings have already taken place. The fourth and final set, originally scheduled for March 2020 but postponed due to Covid, will now take place at United Nations Headquarters in New York from March 7-18.

The proposed treaty covers four main areas: marine genetic resources, area-based management measures, such as marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, capacity building and marine technology transfer.

Global initiative

More than 100 countries, including the UK and 27 EU members, agreed last month in Brest, France, to establish a strong and comprehensive UN treaty on the high seas, providing huge political momentum to discussions.

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