As threats to the ocean rise, negotiators are eager to protect vital biodiversity.
Julian Jackson leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts in Europe to protect ocean life on the high seas. This work complements the Ocean Unite 30 x 30 campaign – a call to action to safeguard 30 per cent of the world’s ocean by 2030.
My favourite fact about the ocean is that it provides 99 per cent of the habitable space for life on Earth. That’s remarkable but also alarming, because as threats to the marine environment continue to mount – greater needs for protection become increasingly urgent.
It is especially worrying that the high seas – the two-thirds of the ocean beyond the reach of most national laws – have precious little protection. At present, only one per cent of the high seas are safeguarded (under a patchwork of measures administered by various international bodies). However, that could be about to change. The United Nations is negotiating a treaty that would, among other things, create a mechanism to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the high seas and require environmental impact assessments for many human activities that happen beyond national jurisdiction. The treaty would also address marine genetic resources, a potential source of inspiration for biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors; and capacity building and the transfer of marine technology, critical in particular for developing countries to be able to both conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity
Having worked in biodiversity conservation policies for over a decade, I’m painfully aware of the many problems facing the ocean. A well-crafted high seas treaty could help address some of the biggest threats, including how fisheries are affecting biodiversity, illegal fishing, shipping, and the emerging spectre of exploration for and removal of high seas resources.
Studies show that large MPAs give marine life space to feed, breed, and flourish without human interference – they also help ecosystems build resilience to warming waters and other disruptions. Marine flora and fauna frequently wander and spread beyond the MPAs, enriching neighbouring areas, including fisheries.
Requiring environmental impact assessments, a treaty would help ensure prudent decisions around human activities – including opening new fisheries and experimenting with new techniques such as geo-engineering – are put in place
Global seaborne trade is expected to treble by 2050, which would cause a rise in marine pollution – this will include noise pollution, which is gaining more recognition as a threat to ocean life. I recently learnt that a single blast from a seismic airgun (used for geological surveys) can kill delicate krill larvae over a kilometre away. All of these factors must be addressed as we work together to protect the high seas.
A new high seas treaty would build upon the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which addresses many activities on the ocean, including the right to free passage and marine scientific research. These rights must be balanced with responsibilities and the new treaty must recognise ocean biodiversity, its value to humanity, and the ever-increasing pressures on marine life.
A UN negotiation session took place in August this year and government delegates worked on a draft treaty. They hashed out language, often working late and in workshops over the weekend. This helped to slim down a few of the differing proposals from delegates, but it also left key differences unresolved, particularly how to share the benefits from marine genetic resources.
The fortnight of treaty negotiations was bookended by two well-known conservation campaigners. On the first day, actor Javier Bardem made a speech to the delegates during a Greenpeace event. On the last day of the conference 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joined the Climate Strike outside the UN.
Although the delegates made limited progress on the treaty, what gave me hope was the genuinely collegial tone of the closing statements. These included a call from more sceptical governments to move forward and deliver on the mandate, as well as prepare for the fourth and final negotiating session in March 2020.
Maybe this optimism and momentum are due to negotiators sensing the increasing public demand for meaningful action to save the ocean and its wondrous and valuable biodiversity and respond to the climate and biodiversity crises. Regardless of what is driving the negotiators, carrying this treaty across the finish line keeps hope alive for a sustainable future for the high seas.
If you want a deeper dive on the threat’s facing the ocean, including the effect of climate change on our ocean, check out this global assessment from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which is due to be released later this month by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
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