The international community has its last best opportunity to conserve ocean biodiversity on the high seas when it meets this week at the United Nations for the final scheduled set of negotiations on a new treaty under the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), following decades of planning, political debate and more recently COVID-19 postponements.
The talks, which for the first time focus on ocean biodiversity conservation in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), also known as “the High Seas,” come at a critical moment for marine life and an environment that is vital to the global food system and the fight against climate change. Currently only 1.2 percent of the High Seas enjoys any protections.
“After decades of negotiations and planning, the world has a once-in-a-generation chance to build meaningful protections for an environment that supports life, as we know it,” said Peggy Kalas of the High Seas Alliance “With climate change and industrial-scale overexploitation now causing a startling decline in marine biodiversity, we may not get another chance.”
“It is hard to exaggerate how crucial these talks are for the multi-trillion dollar global ocean economy, a vital food source for billions of people, and perhaps the best protection the planet has from climate change.” said Kalas.
Covering nearly half of the world’s surface, the high seas—a true global commons—is only protected by a loose patchwork of poorly enforced rules that are ill-suited to address a growing onslaught of pressures to the water column and seabed below, including climate change, pollution, fishing, and emerging activities like deep-sea mining.
The negotiations, meant to reach an agreement on a legally binding treaty to govern the sustainable use of BBNJ, began in 2006 and have since benefited from increased scientific awareness of high seas marine life and habitats, as well as the dangers they face from human activities. Once considered to be largely devoid of life or too remote to face serious threats from human overexploitation, a body of evidence now shows the high seas to support a vibrant marine ecology that is vital to the global food supply, terrestrial ecology, and the planet’s climate system.
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