Nearly 200 countries have agreed to a legally binding treaty to protect marine life in international waters, which cover about half the planet’s surface, but have long been effectively illegal.
The agreement was signed on Saturday night after two weeks of negotiations at UN headquarters in New York that culminated in a mammoth final session of more than 36 hours – but it has been two decades in the making.
The treaty provides legal tools for the creation and management of marine protected areas – sanctuaries to protect the ocean’s biodiversity. It also covers environmental assessments to assess the potential damage from commercial activities, such as deep-sea mining, before they begin and signatories’ commitment to share ocean resources.
“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” said Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic.
The open sea is sometimes called the world’s last true wilderness. This vast expanse of water – whatever lies 200 nautical miles beyond countries’ territorial waters – makes 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 the global fisheries that billions of people rely on and are a critical buffer against the climate crisis – the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the world’s excess heat in recent decades .
However, they are also very vulnerable. Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise and increasingly acidic waters to threaten marine life.
Human activity in the ocean is adding pressure, including industrial fishing, shipping, the burgeoning 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 to protect marine life in this area,” Liz Karan, director of the oceans program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told CNN.
The rules that do exist are piecemeal, fragmented and weakly enforced, meaning that activities on the high seas are often poorly regulated and monitored, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
Only 1.2% of international waters are protected and only 0.8% are designated as “highly protected”.
“There are huge unmanaged habitat gaps between the puzzle pieces. It’s really that bad out there,” Douglas McCauley, a professor of ocean science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told CNN.
The new oceans treaty aims to fill these gaps by providing the legal power to establish and manage marine protected areas in international waters. Experts say this will be crucial to meeting the global biodiversity commitments made by nations at COP15, the UN Conference on Biodiversity in Montreal in December.
A successful treaty “will help us achieve our goal of conserving or protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s ocean by 2030,” Monica Medina, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environment, told CNN via email. Scientific Affairs.
The oceans treaty agreement marks a process that began nearly two decades ago.
In 2004, the UN created an ad hoc group to discuss ocean protection. As recently as 2015, the organization adopted a resolution to develop a binding ocean treaty and, after years of preparatory talks, negotiations began in earnest in 2018.
“It’s been a long arc from when the question was first raised to where we are now,” Karan said.
Many hoped 2022 would be the breakthrough, but talks in August – the second round that year – ended in failure.
These latest negotiations were billed as a final chance for the world’s oceans.
There were points during the negotiations where some worried that the deal would never happen as conflicts threatened to derail the talks. “It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride,” Karan said.
Highlights included eliminating procedures for establishing marine protected areas and ensuring an equitable sharing of costs and benefits – especially as many developing countries may not have the technology or capacity to do their own scientific exploration of the open sea. sea.
But after a grueling final session, the talks ended late on Saturday night with an agreement.
“We commend countries that are seeking compromises, setting aside differences and concluding a treaty that will enable us to protect our oceans, strengthen our resilience to climate change and protect the lives and livelihoods of billions of people,” said Greenpeace’s Meller .
Countries must now formally adopt and ratify the treaty. Then work will begin on implementing marine sanctuaries and trying to meet the goal of protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. “We have half a decade left and we can’t 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 the one, and potentially only, opportunity to do that. And time is urgent. Climate change is going to set our ocean on fire,” McCauley said.