After more than a decade of negotiations, the United Nations (UN) has agreed to its first-ever treaty to protect the world’s oceans outside national boundaries. The UN High Seas Treaty, agreed upon by UN member countries, will place 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas, putting more money into marine conservation and instituting new rules for mining at sea. Environmental groups have praised the treaty, saying it will help reverse biodiversity losses and ensure sustainable development.
At present, two-third of the world’s oceans are considered international waters. That means all countries have a right to fish, ship, and conduct research there. Until now, only 1% of these waters, known as high seas, have been protected, leaving marine life in the vast majority of the high seas at risk of exploitation from threats, including overfishing, climate change, and shipping traffic.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nearly 10% of marine species are at risk of extinction. Dr. Ngozi Oguguah, Chief Research Officer at the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, says the two biggest causes of extinction are overfishing and pollution. The IUCN estimates that 41% of threatened species are also affected by climate change, and research published in the magazine Science shows that climate change has increased marine heat waves 20-fold. These heat waves can cause extreme events such as cyclones and mass mortality events.
The High Seas Treaty aims to protect against potential impacts such as deep sea mining, which is the process of collecting minerals from the ocean bed. Environmental groups are seriously concerned about the possible effects of sea mining, such as disturbing sediment beds, creating noise pollution, and damaging breeding grounds.
The synopsis of the High Seas Treaty is the agreement to place 30% of the world’s international waters into marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2030. However, the level of protection in these areas was strongly contested and remains unresolved. Whatever form of protection is agreed, there will be restrictions on how much fishing activity can take place, the routes of shipping lanes, and exploration activities like deep sea mining.
Other key measures include arrangements for sharing marine genetic resources, such as biological material from plants and animals in the ocean, and requirements for environmental assessments for deep sea activities like mining. Richer nations have pledged new money for the delivery of the treaty. The EU announced nearly 820 million euros (£722.3 million) for international ocean protection on Thursday. However, developing nations were disappointed that a specific funding amount was not included in the text.
Despite the breakthrough in agreeing on the treaty, there is still a long way to go before it is legally agreed. The treaty must first be formally adopted at a later session, and then it only enters “into force” once enough countries have signed up and legally passed it in their own countries. Russia was one of the countries that registered concerns over the final text. Countries must then look practically at how these measures would be implemented and managed. Ms. Epps, from the IUCN, says this implementation is crucial. If marine protected areas are not properly connected, it might not have the desired impact as many migratory species may travel across unprotected areas where they are at risk.
The UN High Seas Treaty is a step forward in protecting the world’s oceans that lie outside national boundaries. It places 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas, puts more money into marine conservation, and means new rules for mining at sea. While there is still a long way to go before the treaty is legally agreed upon, environmental groups are hopeful that the treaty will help reverse biodiversity losses and ensure sustainable development.