“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore,” said conference president Rena Lee while announcing the crucial agreement on Saturday. After a decade of negotiations, United Nations (UN) member states have reached an agreement on the high seas biodiversity treaty aimed to protect marine life which could put an end to unregulated exploitation of the ocean that has been under threat because of climate crisis, overfishing, and harmful activities.
Referred to as the ‘High Seas Treaty’, this historic agreement aims to place 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas by 2030, increase funding for marine conservation, and cover access to and use of marine genetic resources, according to the UN.
In 1982, the last international agreement, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, on ocean protection was signed and it currently protects only 1.2% of the high seas, defined as “all parts of the sea that are not included in the territorial sea or the internal waters of a State” by the Convention on the High Seas,
The new agreement was reached after 38 hours of talks, at UN headquarters in New York. This has been delayed for years due to disagreements about funding and fishing rights.
“I think that the end of the Wild West may be in sight, with a real commitment to implement this treaty,” said Susanna Fuller, a member of the steering committee of the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 environmental groups told Bloomberg. She also emphasised the need to implement CO2 removal schemes soon.
The delegates will reconvene later this year to formally adopt the text of the treaty, which will be then sent to the UN General Assembly for approval.
The ocean is a crucial source of the planet’s oxygen and absorbs more than a third of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The UN treaty could create new barriers for corporations that operate in the high seas, including for those companies proposing to remove carbon dioxide from the ocean, according to Bloomberg.
"It makes this planet habitable," said Liz Karan, who leads high seas protection work at the Pew Charitable Trusts told Reuters last month. "They say that every second breath you breathe comes from the ocean."
But according to the Red List of Threatened Species from the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nearly 10% of underwater plants and animals assessed are threatened with extinction. Over 1,550 of around 17,903 marine plants and animals assessed by the IUCN are at risk of extinction, according to the latest list.
“The awful status of these species should shock us and engage us for urgent action,” said Professor Amanda Vincent, Chair of the IUCN SSC Marine Conservation Committee, in a press statement in December last year.
How does the new treaty protect our oceans?
Although the treaty does not regulate overfishing, a major threat to marine life because fishing in international waters is managed by other organizations, it enables the establishment of marine protected areas on the high seas, where fishing could be restricted or banned. This could help the UN reach the target of preserving 30% of the ocean by 2030.
Along with putting limits on fishing the protected areas, the treaty will also restrict “the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities like deep sea mining - when minerals are taken from a sea bed 200m or more below the surface,” as reported by BBC.
It addresses human activities that harm marine biodiversity by making environmental impact assessments, such as proposals to conduct geoengineering experiments in the ocean to combat climate change, a requirement. The treaty also mandates all nations to share “any bounty from harvesting marine genetic resources, which includes marine molecules, bacteria and algae that could be used in pharmaceuticals and other products,” as reported by Bloomberg.
It also enables the transfer of marine technology to developing countries, which has been a hurdle for the agreement, specifically, the sharing of marine genetic resources.
During the talk small island states that depend on the oceans for survival pressed for the sharing of benefits of marine resources and for help in dealing with the loss of ocean biodiversity caused by developed nations, according to Bloomberg.
“Activities on the high seas have a very strong impact on us, our territorial waters,” said negotiator Ismail Zahir, a representative for Samoa and a principal advisor to the Alliance of Small Island States, told Bloomberg. “The way that we see it, there's no point in having this treaty unless we acknowledge the fact that the benefits should apply and be shared equitably amongst everyone.”
Zahir also said that the small island states are “very happy with the treaty.”