Ocean Rescue: High Seas Treaty Gains Momentum in Pollution Fight

To give marine life a chance, at least 30% of the oceans must be protected in a network of ocean sanctuaries by 2030.

4 mins read
Coral in Nagoya Aquarium Japan [ Photo: SGR/ Unsplash]

A historic new international treaty, described as “a monumental win for the protection of the world’s oceans”, will be open for signature by member states beginning September 20 during the high-level meeting of world political leaders at the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

The treaty will regulate the world’s wide-open oceans which have been degraded by illegal and over-fishing, plastics pollution, indiscriminate seabed mining, and the destruction of marine ecosystems.

Officially known as the Agreement for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), the UN Ocean Treaty is the result of almost two decades of negotiations and will be legally binding after ratification by 60 countries from among the UN’s 193 member states.

The ratification process includes final approval by heads of government or parliaments –depending on the country’s laws. In the US, presidents can sign treaties, but ratification requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

The long-drawn-out discussions on the treaty included four elements of a package that guided the negotiations, namely marine genetic resources (MGRs), questions on benefit-sharing, area-based management tools (ABMTs), marine protected areas (MPAs), environmental impact assessments (EIAs), capacity building and the transfer of marine technology (CB&TT).

Out of 52 multilateral treaties to be highlighted at this year’s treaty-signing event, 17 are related to the environment, including the BBNJ Agreement.

A victory for multilateralism

The breakthrough Agreement, which was adopted on 19 June 2023, was called “a victory for multilateralism” by Secretary-General António Guterres.

“The oceans are in crisis,” said Vladimir Jares, Director of the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, reiterating the importance of the Agreement. He said the UN hopes member states will aim for universal participation, of which the first step is signing the Agreement.

“Universal participation in these treaties is absolutely fundamental to their success,” David Nanopoulos, Chief of the UN Treaty Section, told reporters on 14 September.

He said the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer regulates nearly 100 ozone-depleting substances and has been credited with repairing the ozone layer and slowing down climate change.

“Thanks to universal participation in this treaty, the ozone layer is well on its way to full recovery,” he added.

In a new report released September 14, Greenpeace provided a major new analysis of the ocean threats.

The 30×30: From Global Ocean Treaty to Protection at Sea report sets out a political roadmap to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

Greenpeace report provides a “shocking extent of threats to ocean health” and calls for urgent protection using the new UN Ocean Treaty

Between 2018 and 2022, apparent fishing activity in the high seas rose 8.5% to nearly 8.5 million hours, and in the areas identified for protection under 30×30, the figure rose 22.5%.

These trends show reality at sea is moving in the opposite direction to the ambition laid out in the Treaty, Greenpeace said.

New treaty consistent with SDGs

As well as fishing, the report details how ocean warming, acidification, pollution and the emerging threat of deep-sea mining are placing ever more strain on ocean ecosystems, making clear the urgency of political action to deliver 30×30 using the Ocean Treaty.

Drifting longlines make up over three-fourths of total apparent high seas fishing activity. Longlining is a destructive fishing method, responsible for high levels of bycatch.

Currently, less than 1% of the high seas are properly protected and to reach 30×30 around 11 million KM2 of ocean must be protected every year.

Dr Palitha Kohona, who co- chaired the UN Ad Hoc Working Group on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), told IDN that consistent with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the new treaty seeks to advance conservation goals as well as benefits sharing and technology transfer.

“While the enthusiasm of the NGO community for ocean conservation is laudable, we must not forget the need to strike a balance with the needs of millions of those depending on fisheries for their livelihood and protein intake,” he pointed out.

Millions in the developing world depend on fisheries for their livelihood and they really have no alternative, he argued.

In parallel, marine products constitute the main source of protein for further millions in the global South. Dr Kohona is a former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations and, most recently, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China.

He noted that in a world threatened by a possible food crisis, the needs of millions dependent on fisheries must be kept in mind.

Humanity’s relationship with the oceans

“The needs of the global South may be addressed to some extent by implementing the benefits sharing and technology transfer provisions of the draft treaty with the same enthusiasm demonstrated for marine conservation.”

While keeping all this in mind, he said, “we must applaud the opening for signature of this treaty, which will define another important aspect of humanity’s relationship with the oceans. Most likely, life originated in the oceans, and the oceans continue supporting life.”

Chris Thorne of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said: “The Ocean Treaty was a historic win for nature, but as our report shows, the threats to marine life worsen every day.”

“The Treaty gives us a powerful tool to protect the oceans, but now governments must urgently ratify the Treaty and deliver ocean sanctuaries to give the oceans space to recover and thrive,” he declared.

Thorne also warned that destructive practices at sea threaten the future of ocean health and by extension, the future health of our whole planet.

To give marine life a chance, at least 30% of the oceans must be protected in a network of ocean sanctuaries by 2030.

“We have just seven years left. Countries serious about ocean protection must sign the Ocean Treaty next week at the UN General Assembly and ensure that it is ratified by the UN Ocean Conference in 2025.”

The Greenpeace report also outlines the political steps and actions necessary to establish these ocean sanctuaries using the Treaty.

And it recommends three specific sites on the high seas to be among the first set of ocean sanctuaries due to their ecological significance: the Emperor Seamounts in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean, and the South Tasman Sea/Lord Howe Rise between Australia and New Zealand.

[Source: IDN-InDepthNews]

Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen, IPS United Nations bureau chief and regional director North America, has been covering the UN since the late 1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was also a senior editorial writer on the Hongkong daily, The Standard. He has been runner-up and cited twice for “excellence in UN reporting” at the annual awards presentation of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA).

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