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UN High Seas Treaty to protect the oceans nears ratification

The United Nations has embarked on a groundbreaking journey to safeguard the world’s high seas with a new treaty. This initiative, scheduled to be open for signatures on September 20 at the annual UN General Assembly, heralds the beginning of its ratification process.

Why is this treaty vital?

The high seas, covering approximately 50% of the Earth’s surface, play host to a rich array of biodiversity. However, activities like deep-sea mining, overfishing, pollution, shipping, and the impacts of climate change have placed these vital waters and their ecosystems at risk.

Rebecca Hubbard, the director of the High Seas Alliance, emphasized the criticality of this venture. “The high seas constitute two-thirds of the world’s ocean. It’s pivotal that we commence with the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) therein,” she asserted.

This vast expanse, beyond national boundary waters and officially termed the Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), has so far been devoid of legal protection. This UN High Seas Treaty is set to alter this status quo.

The process of ratification

Countries signing the treaty are indicating their intention to ratify it. However, it’s essential to understand that a signature is not equivalent to domestic legal approval. To truly adopt the treaty, national legislative measures are necessary for each participating country. The treaty will assume a legally binding nature once 60 nations ratify it.

Current challenges on the high seas

Environmental groups and conservationists worldwide are keenly observing the treaty’s rollout. According to statistics provided by the Global Fishing Watch and assessed by Greenpeace, the hours dedicated to fishing activities on the high seas saw an upward trend, increasing by 8.5% from 2018 to 2022.

The High Seas Alliance’s crucial role

Comprising 52 non-governmental organizations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the High Seas Alliance has been instrumental in championing this cause. Their dedication and efforts during treaty negotiations have been pivotal in reaching this “historic” agreement.

Furthermore, they have pinpointed several biodiversity hubs on the high seas that necessitate immediate protection. Notable among these are the Sargasso Sea, white shark cafe, Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges, Costa Rica Thermal Dome, and the Lost City hydrothermal field.

Alexander Killion, Managing Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Global Change at Yale University, commented on the significance of the protected areas. He noted the importance of prioritizing these zones, especially to shield species most vulnerable to threats.

A unified approach to conservation

In March, unity prevailed among UN member nations, leading to a unanimous agreement dedicated to the world’s oceans’ protection.

Rena Lee, the conference president, jubilantly declared from the UN Headquarters in New York, “The ship has reached the shore.” Her announcement marked the culmination of nearly two decades of rigorous dialogue, with the formal adoption of the treaty following in June.

The treaty’s inception showcases the international community’s commitment to preserving the planet’s vital marine ecosystems. With continued collaboration and adherence, the high seas’ future may finally be on a course towards regeneration and sustainability.

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