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U.N. Members Agree On Historic Treaty to Protect High Seas

The United Nations has approved an international treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters, which cover nearly two-thirds of the world's oceans. 


The treaty was approved at an intergovernmental conference to be added as an instrument of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is being referred to as the "High Seas Treaty," and it took nearly two decades of planning and negotiations to finally come to fruition since UN-sponsored talks began in 2004. 


The two weeks of negotiations went much longer than expected, and it was unclear until the very end of the marathon session at the UN Headquarters in New York whether an agreement would even be reached. The last meeting ran for 38 uninterrupted hours, from Friday until late in the evening on Saturday.


"That was excessive, even by UN standards," says Marcel Jaspars, a chemist and marine bio prospector at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, who attended the meeting as an adviser to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), adding that "the delegates were so tired."


The deal paves the way for international cooperation to address ongoing challenges to the oceans like biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change. 


At present, two-thirds of the world's oceans are considered international waters, but only 1% of these waters are protected. As a result, the great majority of marine life is vulnerable to threats from human activities such as overfishing and shipping traffic.


The IUCN’s most recent review of marine species found that almost 10% are in danger of going extinct, with the primary causes of extinction being overfishing and pollution. At the same time, man-made climate change is causing the ocean to warm, endangering marine life. 


Due to the patchwork of different international agreements and organizations that govern international waters, these issues have been impossible to address. With no way to coordinate between these kinds of organizations, many areas of the world’s oceans get overburdened and overexploited.


The High Seas Treaty will provide a legal framework for the establishment of large-scale marine protected areas. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s International Oceans program describes these as "the ocean's equivalent of a Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park.” 


The treaty further stipulates that the networks of MPAs should be "well-connected" rather than existing in isolation and that these managed areas should be "ecologically representative"—that is, they should include a variety of ocean biomes.


The transformation of the world’s international waters into protected areas is a potentially significant step toward fulfilling the worldwide goal of safeguarding 30% of the world's oceans by 2030, which was agreed upon at the 2022 UN biodiversity summit. 


"The science tells us that is the single most important thing we can do to enhance ocean resilience in the face of growing threats related to climate change," said Lisa Speer, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's International Oceans program.


The treaty will also stipulate which countries and firms can access and profit from the commercialization of "marine genetic resources," which can be used to develop pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, or food.


Assuring that those resources will be shared fairly and equitably was a key source of contention in the negotiations, according to Speer, who was a member of the UN negotiating team.


In a similar vein, the pact seeks to increase the inclusivity and accessibility of research done in international waters. This was crucial for developing countries, which argued they lacked the resources to conduct this work on their own and insisted that the treaty should guarantee an access-and-benefit sharing mechanism for marine genetic resources. The legal framework stipulates that any discoveries produced in the deep sea would be shared "fairly and equally" amongst nations. 


Another important part of the agreement is setting global standards for assessing how commercial activities in the ocean affect the environment. Activity is permitted in these regions if it is "consistent with the conservation objectives," which means it does not harm marine life.

This means the treaty could limit fishing, shipping routes, and deep-sea mining. Governments will also be requested to analyze the environmental impact of maritime activities if the effects are unknown or potentially endanger marine life. 


Delegates will have another formal UN session and more work to do before the agreement is legally adopted and ratified. After that, the treaty must be ratified by at least sixty parties and approved by their respective legislatures before it can “enter into force.” Nonetheless, many people are hailing the proposed pact as a success.


In a statement released late Saturday night by his spokesperson, the UN Secretary-General hailed the agreement as "a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come."


The UN chief praised all parties for their ambition, adaptability, and perseverance and noted that the BBNJ decision advances the legacy of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He also hailed Ambassador Rena Lee from Singapore, who had been overseeing the procedure, for her leadership and commitment.


The deal was announced last night by Lee to a lengthy standing ovation in the conference room. With visible emotion, she told the assembled delegates: “The ship has reached the shore.”






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