Some changes come as lightning bolts, others as waves. And when it comes to international negotiations, even the waves can feel like they’re happening in slow-motion – with long periods stuck in freeze-frame. This may be inevitable in a world where delegates argue all night over a comma, and can take years deciding whether or not to even discuss something at all, but it is out of sync in our fast-moving age of high-speed technology, short attention spans and escalating ecological challenges.
Take the ocean. You could grow a whole adult person in the length of time it has taken to move from governments recognizing the need to protect areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdictions, to governments agreeing to negotiate an international agreement to actually do it (you may want to read that sentence again!). I should know; I’ve been closely following the progress of both this nascent agreement and just such a person for over 20 years.
My youngest son was born in 1997, part of Generation Z. He was five and just starting school when the 2002 Rio +10 Summit was held in the town I grew up in, Johannesburg, and the importance of marine protected areas – or ocean regeneration zones – on the high seas was incorporated into the outcome of a major global summit for the very first time.
Fast forward (slowly!) to the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil in 2012. I now have a 15-year-old on my hands, but the path to high seas protection is still taking baby steps. Government leaders again recognised the importance and urgency of conserving and sustainably managing biodiversity in the high seas and committed to take a decision by September 2015 on the development of a new international agreement to protect it. Yes, you may want to read that sentence again too. I have chosen my words carefully. These leaders were not deciding on a big new treaty to protect marine life in the biggest biome on Earth, or protect huge swaths of the ocean from destructive fishing or mining. The big decision they made was on setting a timeline to agree on whether – or not – to launch negotiations to pave the way for such a new treaty.
During the first half of 2015, my son completed his final months of high school, at the same time there was also a milestone moment at the UN in New York: member states finally, and universally, agreed to launch those negotiations. And those of us from civil society and supportive governments around the world celebrated this huge diplomatic leap forward on the path towards protecting the amazing diversity of life in the high seas. At last we could rest assured that comprehensive action would be taken to conserve it … sometime, um, within the next decade.
The high seas, or ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction cover nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of the ocean’s surface area, which is almost half of Earth’s surface. And if you think in 3 dimensions, it includes an incredible 80 per cent of all the living space on Earth. It is not the property of any one country or group of people, but our global commons which is governed collectively by all nations – supposedly for the benefit of all.
Once thought to be barren and devoid of life, we now know that the high seas are one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet. Many marine species, including whales, tunas and sharks, spend much of their lives on the high seas, migrating along the highways and byways of great ocean basins from feeding to spawning grounds and back again. Others spend their entire lives in the high seas, living and breeding along the mighty submerged mountain ranges that span the global ocean. As the reach of science extends into these mysterious, remote places, discoveries being made in ancient, deep-sea coral fields and on seamounts teeming with life are yielding potentially life-saving medicines, enhancing our understanding of global systems, and even shedding light on the origins of life on Earth.
The high seas also provide critical, and extremely valuable, ecosystem services for our planet – from fisheries to climate regulation. Current estimates of the economic value of carbon storage by the high seas range from US$74 billion to US$222 billion per year, while high seas fisheries raise up to US$16 billion annually in gross catch . Plus, it is vital to remember that the frontiers that divide the high seas from ocean zones under national jurisdiction are just lines on the map, totally disregarded by fish, pollution, carbon and trash: what happens on one side of the line affects ocean health and resources on the other.
So you’d think it would be common sense to keep the high seas healthy and full of life, and that decision makers would be motivated to work apace to close any gaps in international law, safeguarding this area so that the benefits that literally spill over from the high seas into country waters can be well stewarded. Well, after nearly 15 years of deliberations, the gaps remain and the high seas are more vulnerable to exploitation than ever, but at least now things are moving forward.
My son is now nearing the end of his first year at University, and at the end of this month delegates will convene at the UN in New York for the start of a two-year process to outline the parameters and contents of a potential high seas agreement.
The ocean impacts all our lives on a daily basis, even those of us living far from its shores. The microscopic plants that inhabit the ocean are responsible for more than half the oxygen we breathe – every second breath that we take. Perhaps if the negotiators at the upcoming meeting spent the first 15 minutes of the discussion skipping every second breath it might speed things up a bit. Because sometimes people need reminding that while we may be able to ship containers over a dead ocean, we need a living ocean to drive that trade, to provide air, food, employment, water, tourism and inspiration.
A rising tide of science and a greater understanding of the role the ocean plays is pointing the way towards what needs to be done to restore and protect it. We are also becoming increasingly aware that many negative impacts take place out of sight, and so – for most people – out of mind. To replenish ocean life we need to create the equivalent of large national parks at sea. These marine reserves are critical for a vibrant ocean, poverty alleviation and food security.
Today less than 2 per cent of the ocean is fully protected. Scientific estimates say that more than 30 per cent must be safeguarded if we are to restore ocean health. The ocean’s ability to replenish itself is amazing, but the extent of the harm inflicted on it by humanity means that it needs our help. By establishing these regeneration zones we can generate benefits for marine life and services that will extend beyond borders and across economies.
Failure is not an option when so much is at stake, which is why the negotiations at the end of March are so important, and why we need to all make our voices heard to speed up a really strong outcome.
So here’s an idea... It might be viewed by some in the diplomatic community as overly ambitious, and by many concerned for the health of our planet as absurdly slow – but, here goes:
In 2022, a Rio+30 Earth Summit could be convened, perhaps for the first time putting ocean health at the heart of the global governance agenda. What if it also celebrated the entry into force of a new international agreement to protect and conserve marine life on the high seas, including the designation of clearly mapped, scientifically approved international ocean regeneration zones covering 30 per cent of the high seas?
To achieve this goal we all – governments, scientists and civil society – need to work hard and massively step up the pace. But the ocean needs our protection, not our procrastination. It will have taken the span of an entire generation to get to this point – far too slow and cumbersome for Generation Z, the so-called ‘digital natives’. But, in 2022 my son will be 25 and his generation will be helping resolve global challenges themselves; maybe this will help speed things up. The next generation, today’s children, has been named ‘Alpha’ – the first letter of the Greek alphabet. We owe them a fresh start, a flourishing world full of opportunities. An agreement to protect the high seas for the benefit of all humanity is an essential step. By working together, all of us, of whatever generation, can put the ocean – over 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface – on the path to recovery and help to secure our common future.
To follow the discussions at the UN and make your voice heard or show your support for a #highseas #treaty follow @HighSeasAllianc, and visit the High Seas Alliance to join the many people and organizations uniting to make this amazing dream, a reality.
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