UN ocean treaty is ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to protect the high seas


Source: The Guardian

The world has a “once in a lifetime” chance to protect the high seas from exploitation, warned scientists and environmentalists, as negotiators meet at the UN headquarters in New York this week to hammer out a new treaty on the oceans.

One scientist described the treaty, which will set out a legal framework to protect biodiversity and govern the high seas, as the most significant ocean protection agreement for four decades.

“It’s extremely important it happens now,” said Prof Alex Rogers, science director of Rev Ocean, an ocean research NGO. “We’ve continued to see industrialisation of areas beyond national boundaries, including distant-water fishing and potentially deep-sea mining.”

A vast portion of the ocean, 64% by surface area, lies outwith the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that cover approximately 200 nautical miles from the shorelines of individual states. Referred to as the high seas, they host a wide array of ecosystems and species, many insufficiently studied and recorded. The increasing reach of shipping vessels, seabed mining and new activities such as “bioprospecting” of marine species have put the high seas and its biodiversity at increasing risk of exploitation.

A group of 50 countries has signed up to the 30×30 coalition, which launched in January 2021 and aims to protect 30% of the planet’s land and sea by 2030. But without an agreement, these much-heralded pledges will have no legal basis in the high seas.

Currently, all countries have the right to navigate, fish and carry out scientific research on the high seas with few restrictions. Only 1.2% of this marine area is protected.

Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University who has quantified the rise in human pressures on the marine environment, describes a “blue acceleration”, or dash for resources, over the past two or three decades. “You have a race for the ocean in all these different sectors, but there is no overview.”

“One of the fallacies about the high seas is that you have this great big empty space. The other is that it is a quiet space. Both of those are untrue,” said Doug McCauley, associate professor of ocean science at the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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©Photograph: Nadia Aly/Ocean Photography Awards/PA