For the first time, UN members have agreed a unified treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas – representing a turning point for vast swathes of the planet where conservation has previously been 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 a well-established concept. The treaty agreement ended two weeks of negotiations in New York.
The last international treaty on ocean protection was signed 40 years ago in 1982 – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, according to BBC News.
An updated framework to protect marine life in areas beyond national territorial waters, known as the high seas, has been under discussion for more than 20 years, but previous efforts to reach an agreement have repeatedly stalled. The unifying treaty agreement, which applies to about half the planet’s surface, was reached late Saturday.
“We really have two major global commons — the atmosphere and the ocean,” says Georgetown marine biologist Rebecca Helm. While the oceans may get less attention, “protecting this half of the Earth’s surface is absolutely critical to the health of our planet.”
Nicola Clarke, an ocean expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts who observed the talks in New York, called the text of the long-awaited agreement “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the oceans — a big win for biodiversity.”
The agreement will create a new agency to conserve marine life and establish marine protected areas on the high seas. And Clark says it’s critical to achieving the UN’s recent commitment to conserve 30% of the planet’s water as well as its land.
The contract talks were initially expected to end on Friday, but extended into the night and late into Saturday. High Siege Alliance director Rebecca Hubbard called it a “two-week rollercoaster ride of negotiations and superhero efforts over the past 48 hours.”
Germany’s Environment Minister Steffi Lemke said the deal, which had at times appeared to be in jeopardy, represented “a historic and overwhelming breakthrough for international marine protection”.
“For the first time, we’re getting a binding agreement on the high seas, which until now has been barely secured,” Lemke said. “Comprehensive protection of endangered species and habitats is now possible on more than 40% of the Earth’s surface.”
The agreement also establishes ground rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for commercial activities at sea.
“This means that all activities planned for the high seas need to be looked at, although not all will undergo full assessment,” said Jessica Battle, 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 marine life alongside human communities that depend on fishing or tourism have long proved difficult for international management agencies.
“This agreement will help weave together the various regional agreements to be able to address threats and concerns across species’ ranges,” Battle said.
This protection also helps coastal biodiversity and the economy, said Gladys Martinez 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 strengthens the legal protection of two-thirds of the ocean, and with it marine biodiversity and the livelihoods of coastal communities,” he said.
The question now is to what extent the ambitious agreement will be implemented.
Formal adoption also remains elusive, with numerous conservation and environmental groups pledging to watch closely.
The high seas have long been subject to exploitation due to commercial fishing and mining as well as chemical and plastic pollution. Malin Pinsky, a biologist at Rutgers University, said the new agreement is a “recognition that the ocean is not a limitless resource and that global cooperation is needed to use the ocean sustainably.”