Countries agree on historic high seas treaty to protect international waters

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Nearly 200 countries have agreed to a legally binding “high seas convention” to protect marine life in international waters, which cover about half the planet’s surface, but have been long ago lawless.

The agreement was signed on Saturday night after two weeks of negotiations at the United Nations headquarters in New York culminated in a grand final session of more than 36 hours – but it has been two decades .

The Convention provides legal tools to establish and manage marine protected areas – sanctuaries to protect the ocean’s biodiversity. It also covers environmental assessments to assess the potential damage of commercial activities, such as deep sea mining, before they start and a commitment from signatories to share marine resources.

“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can influence geopolitics,” said Laura Meller, Oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic, in a statement .

The high seas are sometimes called the last true wilderness on earth. This vast body of water – everything that lies 200 nautical miles beyond the territorial waters of countries – makes up more than 60% of the world’s oceans by surface area.

These waters provide habitat for a wealth of species and unique ecosystems, support the global fisheries that billions of people depend on and are a vital buffer against climate change. -climate – the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the world’s heat over the last decades. .

But they are also very vulnerable. Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise and increasingly acidic waters are threatening marine life.

Human activity on the ocean is putting pressure on it, including industrial fishing, shipping, the deep-sea mining industry and the race to use the ocean’s “genetic resources” – material from marine plants and animals for their use in industries such as pharmaceuticals.

A vessel fishing for squid on the high seas near the Galapagos Islands.

“Right now, there are no comprehensive regulations to protect marine life in this area,” Liz Karan, director of the oceans project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told CNN.

Existing regulations are patchy, fragmented and weakly enforced, meaning that activities on the high seas are often unregulated and under-monitored, leaving them -injured to use.

Only 1.2% of international waters are protected, and only 0.8% are designated as “highly protected.”

“There are large gaps of unmanaged habitat between the puzzle pieces. It’s really that bad out there,” Douglas McCauley, a professor of marine science at the University of California Santa Barbara, told CNN.

The New Seas Convention aims to fill these gaps by providing the legal force to create and manage marine protected areas in international waters. Experts say this will be crucial to meeting global biodiversity commitments made at COP15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December.

A successful treaty “will help us achieve the goal of conserving or protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030,” said Monica Medina, US Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, to CNN via email.

The high seas are home to unique species and ecosystems.

The agreement of the treaty of the seas marks a process that started about two decades ago.

Back in 2004, the UN established an ad hoc group to discuss ocean protection. It was not until 2015 that the group adopted a resolution to develop a binding oceans treaty and, after years of preparatory talks, negotiations began in earnest in 2018.

“It’s been a long time since the first time the question was raised, to where we are now,” said Karan.

Many had hoped that 2022 would be a breakthrough, but talks in August – the second round that year – ended in failure.

These latest talks have been heralded as a last chance for the world’s oceans.

There were points during the talks where some were worried that an agreement would never happen, as conflict threatened to cancel talks. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” Karan said.

Key sticking points included the processes for creating marine protected areas and ensuring that costs and benefits were shared fairly – particularly as many developing countries may not have the technology or capacity to to carry out a scientific study of the ocean itself.

But after a grueling final session, the talks ended late Saturday night with an agreement.

“We commend countries for seeking compromises, putting aside differences and delivering an agreement that will allow us to protect the oceans, build our resilience against climate change and will protect the lives and livelihoods of billions of people,” said Meller Greenpeace.

Countries must now formally accept and ratify the treaty. Then the work will begin to implement the marine sanctuaries and try to achieve the target of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. “We have half a decade left, and we cannot be complacent,” said Meller.

“If we want the high seas to be healthy for the next century we need to upgrade this system – now. And this is our only, and perhaps only, chance to do that. And the time is urgent. Climate change is going to rain hellfire on our oceans,” McCauley said.

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