The new UN treaty aims to make it law

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It may come as a surprise to other earthlings, but the ocean actually represents the majority of habitable space on our planet. However, a large part of it has been left largely unchecked. It is a vast global common resource and the focus of a new treaty called the Biodiversity Agreement Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ).

For 15 years, UN member states have been negotiating rules that will apply to the ocean more than 200 nautical miles from shore, including the seabed and the airspace above, referred to as the “high seas.”

Covering almost half of the Earth’s surface, the high seas are shared by all nations under international law, with equal rights to navigation, fishing and scientific research. So far, only a small number of states have taken advantage of these opportunities.

This new agreement is supposed to help more countries get involved by creating rules to more fairly share the rewards from new fields of scientific discovery. This includes helping developing countries with research funding and technology transfer.

Countries acceding to the treaty must also ensure that they properly assess and mitigate any environmental impacts from ships or aircraft on the high seas under their jurisdiction. This will be especially important for new activities such as plastic removal.

Once at least 60 states have ratified the agreement (this could take three or more years), it will be possible to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in high seas locations of particular value.

This could protect unique ecosystems such as the Sargasso Sea: a haven of floating algae bounded by ocean currents in the North Atlantic and providing breeding habitat for countless rare species. By limiting what can happen to these sites, MPAs can help marine life persist against climate change, acidification, pollution and fishing.

There are obstacles for all nations to participate in the common enjoyment and protection of the high seas, even with this new treaty. States joining the new agreement will have to work with existing global organizations such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which regulates shipping, as well as regional fisheries management organizations.

The high seas are supposed to belong to everyone—a new UN treaty aims to make it law

Icefish genes may hold the key to new drugs. Credit: Marrabbio2

The new treaty encourages consultation and cooperation with existing bodies, but states should balance their commitments with those undertaken under other agreements. Already, some departments within governments cooperate with each other when implementing broad international treaties. For example, one division may challenge greenhouse gas pollution regulations imposed at the IMO, while a sister organization advocates for stricter climate change measures elsewhere.

A new research frontier

A key element of the new treaty addresses the disproportionate ability of developed countries to benefit from scientific knowledge and commercial products derived from genetic samples taken from the high seas. More than 40 years ago, when the convention on the law of the sea was being negotiated, the same issue arose regarding seabed minerals in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Industrialized nations had the technology to explore and intended to eventually mine these minerals, while developing countries did not. At that time, nations agreed that these resources were part of the “common heritage of mankind” and created the International Seabed Authority to administer a common regime for their exploitation.

The extreme conditions for life in the open ocean have fostered a rich variety of survival strategies, from bacteria that thrive in the super-hot hydrothermal vents of the deep sea to icefish that breed in the bitter cold of the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. These life forms carry potentially valuable information in their genes, known as marine genetic resources.

This new agreement gives developing states, whether coastal or landlocked, rights to the benefits of marine genetic resources. However, it does not constitute a governing body comparable to the one created for seabed mining. Instead, non-monetary benefits, such as access to samples and digital sequence information, will be shared and researchers from all countries will be able to study them for free.

Economic inequality between countries will still determine who can access these samples to a large extent, and the sharing of DNA sequence data will be further complicated by the Convention on Biological Diversity, another global treaty. The BBNJ agreement will create an economic mechanism for sharing the monetary benefits of marine genetic resources, although experts involved in the negotiations are still analyzing what that will ultimately look like.

The best hope for strong marine protected areas and equitable use of marine genetic resources lies in the rapid implementation of the BBNJ Agreement. However, its effectiveness will depend on how its provisions are interpreted in each country and on the procedural rules established. In many ways, the hard work begins.

Although areas beyond national jurisdiction are remote to most people, they produce the air you breathe, the food you eat and moderate the climate. Life exists throughout the ocean, from the surface to the seabed. Ensuring that it benefits everyone living today, as well as future generations, will depend on this next phase of implementation of the historic treaty.

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Reference: The high seas are supposed to belong to everyone: New UN treaty aims to make it law (2023, March 8) Retrieved March 8, 2023, from treaty-goals-law.html

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