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UN Gives World Oceans ‘A Fighting Chance’ With Adoption of Landmark High Seas Treaty

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability CRISIS - Mass Extinction by Martina Igini Global Commons Jun 20th 20233 mins
UN Gives World Oceans ‘A Fighting Chance’ With Adoption of Landmark High Seas Treaty

The legally binding High Seas Treaty, agreed upon by member states in March, ensures the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in international waters. 

After nearly two decades of fierce negotiations over a common conservation strategy in the high seas beyond national boundaries, 193 UN member nations adopted the world’s first treaty to protect the high seas and preserve marine biodiversity on Monday.

“… [T]oday, you have pumped new life and hope to give the ocean a fighting chance,” UN chief António Guterres told member states, describing the adoption – which follows an agreement reached in March by more than 100 countries on the treaty’s text – as a “historic achievement”. 

Negotiators effectively agreed to establish marine protected areas spanning millions of kilometres and help reverse marine biodiversity loss.

What Are High Seas?

The UN has spent nearly 20 years trying to reach an agreement on the high seas, vast stretches of water beyond national boundaries that cover two-thirds of all ocean and almost half of the planet, are home to up to 10 million species, and are an invaluable source of food for billions of people. 

Despite their importance, only 1% of high seas is currently protected, and climate change-related phenomena such as ocean acidification, as well as human activities like overfishing, pose a growing threat to the world’s oceans. Plastic pollution also represents a major issue. In 2021, plastic made up 85% of all marine litter, and if this trend continues, the UN estimated that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish.

About 10% of the assessed marine animal and plant species are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as at risk of extinction, but the number could be much higher considering the amount of unknown species in the deep seas. 

New Legally Binding Rules

The High Seas Treaty addresses four major themes: Marine genetic resources, area-based management tools – including marine protected areas, environmental impact assessment, as well as capacity building and transfer of marine technology.

In line with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the new treaty contains 75 articles aimed at “protecting, caring for, and ensuring the responsible use of marine environment, maintaining the integrity of ocean ecosystems, and conserving the inherent value of marine biological diversity.” 

For this to happen, countries must first of all work towards stopping destructive trends, including marine plastic pollution and unsustainable fishing practices. This means that signatories are now legally required to assess the potential impacts of any planned activities beyond their national jurisdiction.

The new agreement “is critical to addressing the threats facing the ocean, and to the success of ocean-related goals and targets – including the 2030 Agenda and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework,” Guterres said on Monday.

The 2022 Kunming-Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), heralded as a landmark Agreement and the “Paris Agreement” for nature, includes four broader Goals and 23 Targets towards the 2050 Vision of Living in Harmony with Nature of the Convention on Biological Diversity. 

The GBF has an ambitious short-term mission to “halt and reverse biodiversity loss” by 2030. A prerequisite for fulfilling this mission is a target popularly known as 30×30 –put 30% of the world’s land and sea under environmental protection by 2030, a historic goal set at COP15 last December.

Besides creating a legal framework to place 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas, the High Seas Treaty also guarantees funding for marine conservation and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources.

Agreeing on access and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources to make sure they are shared in an equitable way was a major sticking point during the latest round of negotiations, with developing nations arguing that benefit-sharing should be guaranteed and clarified in the treaty text.

Member states will have two years starting September 20, 2023, to sign the agreement. A minimum of 60 signatories are required for the treaty to take effect

You might also like: Will the 2030s Be the Decade for Global Biodiversity Conservation?

About the Author

Martina Igini

Martina is the Managing Editor at Earth.Org. She holds two BA degrees, in Translation/Interpreting Studies and Journalism, and a MA in International Development from the University of Vienna. After working at the United Nations Global Communication Department in Vienna, she joined a newspaper in Italy as a reporter before moving to Hong Kong in 2020. Her interests include sustainability and the role of public policy in environmental protection with a focus on developing countries.

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