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Why a UN high seas treaty was agreed to protect the oceans
Local boy takes a break from diving in the sea at Serua Village, Fiji, July 14, 2022. As the community runs out of ways to adapt to the rising Pacific Ocean, the 80 villagers face the painful decision whether to move. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
What’s the context?
More than 100 countries agree long-awaited pact to protect the high seas from overfishing, pollution and climate change impacts
- U.N. high seas biodiversity treaty was agreed in New York
- Overfishing, pollution biggest threats to marine areas
- Pact gives legal mechanism for high seas protected areas
LONDON - A global U.N. treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas was agreed on Saturday after protracted negotiations involving more than 100 countries.
The high seas - areas lying beyond countries' exclusive economic zones - make up nearly two-thirds of the world's oceans, and are imperiled by overfishing, pollution and other threats.
The long-awaited pact, which aims to reverse biodiversity loss and ensure sustainable development in the oceans, has been under discussion for 15 years.
"This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come," said a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement.
So why do oceans matter, and how will the U.N. high seas treaty help to protect them?
Why is ocean conservation important?
The world's oceans play a major role in the global climate - providing oxygen that sustains human and animal life, driving weather systems and storing about a quarter of the planet-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by human activities.
"It makes this planet habitable," said Liz Karan, who leads high seas protection work at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"They say that every second breath you breathe comes from the ocean," she said.
The ocean also supports a huge range of biodiversity, including potentially millions of species that humans have not discovered yet.
But according to the Red List of Threatened Species from the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nearly 10% of underwater plants and animals assessed so far are threatened with extinction.
How are oceans being damaged?
The biggest driver of environmental decline in the ocean has been from "indiscriminate" fishing, said Jessica Battle, a senior expert on ocean policy and governance at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
This not only depletes fish stocks but erodes the ability of their populations to rebuild, she said, and many fish are accidentally caught and later discarded as waste - so-called bycatch.
According to estimates, bycatch accounts for about 40% of the world's global commercial catch.
Pollution is another major cause of harm, including plastics, sewage, and excess nutrients which wash from the land to create "dead zones" in the ocean by causing an overgrowth of bacteria on the sea floor that uses up oxygen and suffocates other life, Battle said in an interview.
At the same time, climate change is also affecting ocean health - causing coral reef bleaching and forcing fish to migrate to cooler waters.
What was agreed in the U.N. high seas treaty?
The treaty agreed at the United Nations provides a legal mechanism to create protected areas in the high seas to preserve biodiversity.
It also resolved a number of contentious issues including how countries should share benefits from the "blue economy" as well as "marine genetic resources" used in industries like biotechnology.
"What happens on the high seas will no longer be 'out of sight, out of mind'," Battle of WWF said in a statement after the deal was signed.
The WWF statement also welcomed the agreement that high seas activities such as deep sea mining and carbon capture would be subject to environmental impact assessments.
"The high seas treaty will allow for the kind of oversight and integration we need if we want the ocean to keep providing the social, economic and environmental benefits humanity currently enjoys," Battle added.
What percentage of oceans are protected?
During U.N. talks in December in Montreal, countries agreed a landmark deal to slow and reverse biodiversity loss, including a target to protect 30% of the world's lands and seas by 2030.
Conservationists say the new high seas treaty is crucial to meeting these targets, as the global "30 by 30" goal will likely be unattainable without protecting the oceans beyond national waters.
Currently, 8.16% of marine areas are protected globally which includes 1.44% of the high seas, according to the latest figures from the IUCN.
High seas areas that are already protected include parts of the North East Atlantic and Antarctic oceans, but because the protection accords are regional rather than global, they do not bind all governments, Battle said.
Are marine protected areas affected?
Marine protected areas (MPAs) help preserve nature by prohibiting certain activities such as fishing, and several scientific studies have shown that well-enforced MPAs increase the number and diversity of species in the areas and beyond.
"If there is greater abundance of marine life within those areas of protection, they have spillover effects because MPAs don't have closed borders," said Karan from Pew.
However, she said their effectiveness hinges on having management plans in place to ensure enforcement, which includes the use of tools like high-resolution satellites.
"The real test will be creating those high seas protected areas and making sure that they are highly and fully protected from extractive activities," Karan said
(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Helen Popper and Kieran Guilbert)
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