Global Courant 2023-03-06 00:47:13
WASHINGTON — For the first time, the members of the United Nations have agreed on a unified treaty to protect high seas biodiversity – a watershed moment for vast swaths of the planet where conservation was previously hampered by a confusing patchwork of laws.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force in 1994, before marine biodiversity was an established concept. The treaty deal concluded two weeks of talks in New York.
An updated framework to protect marine life in the regions beyond national border waters, known as the high seas, has been discussed for more than 20 years, but previous attempts to reach an agreement have repeatedly stalled. The unified agreement treaty, which applies to nearly half of the Earth’s surface, was reached late Saturday.
“We really only have two major global commons: the atmosphere and the oceans,” said Georgetown marine biologist Rebecca Helm. While the oceans may attract less attention, “protecting this half of the Earth’s surface is absolutely critical 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 once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect the oceans — a major win for biodiversity.”
The treaty will create a new body to manage the conservation of ocean life and establish marine protected areas in the high seas. And Clark said this is critical to fulfilling the recent UN Biodiversity Conference pledge to protect 30% of the planet’s waters, as well as land, for conservation.
The treaty negotiations were initially supposed to be completed on Friday, but lasted well into the night and well into Saturday. The creation of the treaty, which at times appeared to be in jeopardy, represents “a historic and overwhelming success for the international protection of the sea,” said Steffi Lemke, Germany’s environment minister.
“For the first time, we are getting a binding agreement for the high seas, which has hardly been protected so far,” said Lemke. “Comprehensive protection of endangered species and habitats is now finally possible on more than 40% of the Earth’s surface.”
The treaty also establishes basic rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for commercial activities in the oceans.
“It means reviewing all planned activities for the high seas, although not all activities will undergo a full review,” said Jessica Battle, an ocean governance expert at the Worldwide 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, along with human communities that rely on fishing or tourism related to marine life, have long proved difficult for international governing bodies.
“This treaty will help bring together the various regional treaties to address threats and concerns about species distribution,” Battle said.
That protection also helps coastal biodiversity and economies, said Gladys Martínez de Lemos, executive director of the nonprofit Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, which focuses on environmental issues across Latin America.
“Governments have taken an important step that will legally protect two-thirds of the ocean, strengthening marine biodiversity and livelihoods of coastal communities,” she said.
The question now is how well the ambitious treaty will be implemented.
Formal adoption also remains outstanding, with numerous conservationists and environmental groups promising to watch closely.
The high seas have long been exploited as a result of commercial fishing and mining, as well as pollution from chemicals and plastics. The new agreement is about “recognizing that the ocean is not a limitless resource and that global collaboration is needed to use the ocean sustainably,” said Rutgers University biologist Malin Pinsky.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Berlin.
Follow Larson on Twitter at @larsonchristina and Whittle at @pxwhittle
The Associated Press Health and Science division is supported by the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.