For the first time, members of the United Nations have agreed to a unified treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas – a watershed moment for large swathes of the planet where conservation was previously hampered by a confusing patchwork of laws.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea entered into force in 1994, before marine biodiversity was a well-established concept. The treaty agreement concluded two weeks of talks in New York.
An updated framework to protect marine life in areas outside national border waters, known as the high seas, had been under discussion for more than 20 years, but previous efforts to reach an agreement had repeatedly failed. . The Unified Accord Treaty, which applies to almost half of the planet’s surface, was reached on Saturday evening.
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“We really only have two big global commons — the atmosphere and the oceans,” said Georgetown marine biologist Rebecca Helm. Although the oceans get less attention, “protecting this half of the Earth’s surface is absolutely essential to the health of our planet.”
Nichola Clark, an oceans expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts who observed the talks in New York, called the long-awaited treaty text “a unique opportunity to protect the oceans _ a major victory for biodiversity”.
The treaty will create a new body to manage the conservation of marine life and establish marine protected areas on the high seas. And Clark said it was key to achieving the recent commitment of the United Nations Conference on the biodiversity to protect 30% of the planet’s waters, as well as its land, for conservation.
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The treaty negotiations were originally scheduled to conclude on Friday, but dragged on through the night and into Saturday. The drafting of the treaty, which at times seemed threatened, represents “a historic and overwhelming success for international marine protection”, said Steffi Lemke, Germany’s environment minister.
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“For the first time, we are getting a binding agreement for the high seas, which until now was barely protected,” Lemke said. “Comprehensive protection of threatened species and habitats is now finally possible over more than 40% of the Earth’s surface.”
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The treaty also establishes ground rules for carrying out environmental impact assessments of commercial activities in the oceans.
“This means that all activities planned for the high seas should be reviewed, although not all will be fully assessed,” said Jessica Battle, ocean governance expert at the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Several marine species _ including dolphins, whales, sea turtles and many fish _ make long annual migrations, crossing national borders and the high seas. Efforts to protect them, as well as the human communities that depend on the fishing or marine-related tourism, have long proven difficult for international governing bodies.
“This treaty will help bring together the various regional treaties to be able to address threats and concerns across species ranges,” Battle said.
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This protection also helps biodiversity and coastal economies, said Gladys Martinez de Lemos, executive director of the nonprofit Inter-American Association for the Defense of the Environment, which focuses on environmental issues in Latin America.
“Governments have taken an important step that strengthens the legal protection of two-thirds of the ocean and with it marine biodiversity and the livelihoods of coastal communities,” she said.
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The question now is to what extent this ambitious treaty will be implemented.
Formal adoption also remains up in the air, with many conservationists and environmental groups promising to keep a close watch.
The high seas have long suffered from exploitation due to commercial fishing and mining, as well as chemical and plastic pollution. The new agreement seeks to “recognize that the ocean is not an unlimited resource and requires global cooperation to use the ocean sustainably,” said Rutgers University biologist Malin Pinsky.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Berlin.
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