After years of negotiations, a historic agreement to protect the world’s oceans was reached in March 2023 at the UN headquarters in New York. In June, the pact was formally adopted by the United Nations.
Just this week, the treaty was signed by 67 countries. The primary objective of the treaty is to safeguard marine life in the high seas – international waters that are not part of any country’s jurisdiction.
Since all countries have the right to fishing and other activities in the high seas, it is important that nations can agree on how this part of the ocean can be used.
Still yet, only 1.2 percent of the high seas are in protected areas. Outside of these boundaries, marine life is threatened by overfishing and other human activities.
“With the signature of the High Seas Treaty, we can safeguard the ocean from human pressures, and get closer to our objective of protecting at least 30% of the planet by 2030,” said European Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, calling the treaty “our constitution for the ocean.”
“We only really have two major global commons – the atmosphere and the oceans,” noted Georgetown marine biologist Rebecca Helm. While the oceans may draw less attention, protecting this half of earth’s surface is absolutely critical to the health of our planet, said Helm.
The Treaty of the High Seas will create a new body to manage conservation of ocean life and establish marine protected areas.
Nichola Clark, an oceans expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts observed the treaty discussions in New York. Clark noted that the agreement is a critical step to achieve the U.N. Biodiversity Conference’s recent pledge to protect 30 percent of the planet’s waters, as well as its land, for conservation.
“This is a once in a generation opportunity to protect the oceans – a major win for biodiversity,” said Clark.
The high seas treaty has also established rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for commercial projects in the ocean.
“It means all activities planned for the high seas need to be looked at, though not all will go through a full assessment,” said Jessica Battle, an oceans governance expert at the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
“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,” said Gladys Martínez de Lemos, executive director of the nonprofit Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense.
Malin Pinsky, a biologist at Rutgers University, said the new treaty is about “acknowledging that the ocean is not a limitless resource, and it requires global cooperation to use the ocean sustainably.”
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