Historic world treaty commits to protecting international waters

A historic conservation treaty has seen 193 nations come together for the first time to agree on a High Seas Treaty that aims to convert 30% of international waters into protected areas by 2030. This treaty is necessary for the success of the landmark global biodiversity agreement framework and is a breakthrough in negotiations that have been ongoing since 2004.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached shore,” announced Rena Lee, President of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), to a standing ovation at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York on Saturday , 4th of March.

The deal came after massive 38 hours of talks that followed years of standoffs over disputes over fishing rights and funding. The treaty appeared to falter at times during the last two weeks of negotiations, with the main issue being the equitable sharing of marine genetic resources (MGR).

MGRs from deep-sea sponges, algae and bacteria are proving to be increasingly advantageous and lucrative areas of development in pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food production. Poorer nations understandably had great concerns about access to these resources and their benefits, given that much of the funding for exploration and commercial interests in MGR comes from the wealthiest countries.

In the newly proposed protected areas, nations agreed on restrictions on fishing, shipping lanes and deep-sea activities like mining, which would require new environmental assessment procedures. How these protected areas will be managed and how funding will be provided has yet to be determined.

“Currently, the data that mining companies are providing to the International Seabed Authority on the environmental impacts of their deep-sea mining is very limited,” said Elaine Baker, UNESCO Chair in Marine Sciences at the School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, Australia. “We hope the treaty will force changes to increase transparency and help protect deep-sea marine biodiversity.”

However, it is a historic moment for the recognition of the international waters that lie beyond national borders and make up about two-thirds of the oceans. The last agreement was signed more than 40 years ago with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This treaty defined the high seas, but so far only 1.2% of those waters were in protected areas.

“The high seas have been subject to unregulated resource extraction, mainly from fishing, for many decades, with increasing impacts on migratory species such as whales,” said Olaf Meyneck, manager of the Whales and Climate Research Program at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. “As the world’s oceans are under pressure from global change, including pollution, fisheries and climate change, protecting at least 30% will help reduce some of these impacts and safeguard marine biodiversity for generations to come.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), almost 10% of marine species are threatened with extinction and another 41% of threatened species are affected by climate change. Preserving and protecting biodiversity is vital to the survival of the planet.

This agreement promises to keep the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework on track as it makes an ambitious commitment to protect 30% of biodiversity-rich land and water by 2030.

“What’s happening on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind,'” said Jessica Battle, senior global ocean governance and policy expert who leads the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) team at the UN conducted negotiations. “We can now look at the cumulative impacts on our ocean in a way that reflects the connected blue economy and the ecosystems that support it.”

The draft treaty will now be reviewed for technical details and translated into the six official UN languages ​​before another meeting for formal adoption.

“Ocean advocates around the world can enjoy this moment that is years in the making,” said Battle. “But that’s not a finish line. For the treaty’s good intentions to deliver results on the water, we need to keep up the pressure. Once the technical details are worked out and the treaty is adopted, in order for it to come into force it must come into force – all countries must quickly formally sign it and incorporate it into their own national legislation. Words matter, but our ocean needs action.”

Source: United Nations

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