Saving the Seas: UN Members Reach Historic Agreement to Protect the Ocean

Thanks to this historic deal, 30% of the seas will be protected areas by 2030. Negotiations had started almost 20 years ago.

Credit: Unsplash/Thomas Kelley/United Nations

By Amandine Galama – 10th grade.

Following nearly two decades of talks, UN member countries have finalized The High Seas Treaty, a treaty that aims to conserve and sustain marine biological diversity in areas outside of national jurisdiction. The negotiations began in 2004, but after 38 hours of talks at the UN headquarters in New York, an agreement to protect the High Seas was finally agreed upon this March.

The goal of this Treaty is to make 30% of the seas protected areas by 2030, in order to help safeguard marine life, and allow it to recuperate. The Treaty concerns the high seas, which are waters outside of any country’s jurisdiction, and is meant to protect two-thirds of this area. It is the first international agreement on ocean protection since 1982, more than forty years ago. That treaty only helped protect 1.2% of high waters, leaving the rest of marine life at risk of overfishing and shipping traffic. The new treaty intends to limit fishing, deep sea mining, and shipping traffic in a much larger part of the ocean, and is crucial to upholding the 30×30 pledge, to protect 30% of the land and sea by 2030, which the UN made in December’s biodiversity conference.

One of the major issues which divided countries was how to share Marine Genetic Resources (MGR). MGR is the genetic material of krill, deep-sea marine sponges, corals, bacteria and seaweeds, and is important due to its potential use in medicines and cosmetics. To facilitate the ratification of the Treaty and guarantee its early implementation, the European Union pledged €40 million ($42 million) in New York, in a move that has been seen as an attempt to build trust between rich and poor countries. 

Whales capture tons of carbon dioxide from the air

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), almost 10% of marine species are at risk of extinction. The protection of the ocean is important not only for the animals that live in it, but the whole planet. Half the oxygen we breathe is produced by ocean ecosystems. These ecosystems represent 95% of the planet’s biosphere. They also soak up carbon dioxide; over the last 10 years, 23% of human-related carbon emissions were absorbed by the ocean. Whales, for example, capture tons of carbon dioxide from the air. Were it not for the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, climate change would be much worse than it currently is, but despite the ocean’s importance, before this Treaty there was not much protection in place for the High Seas, leaving marine life in these areas more susceptible to exploitation than in coastal waters. 

The non-profit organization Greenpeace celebrated the Treaty, and hopes that countries will put it into practice as soon as possible. Greenpeace USA’s senior oceans campaigner, Arlo Hemphill said that the Treaty is “the biggest conservation agreement in the history of the world”, and that it “provides a pathway to establish marine sanctuaries so that countries can turn their commitment to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030 into a reality.”

While the Treaty is not perfect, the fact that 193 countries agreed upon it is a huge accomplishment, and a big step in the protection of the environment. Ocean’s activist, Dr. Laura Meller, of Greenpeace Nordic called it, “a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics.” She also added that “we can now finally move from talk to real change at sea.”  The World Wildlife Fund also celebrated the victory, with Jessica Battle, senior Global Ocean Governance and Policy Expert, saying “what happens on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

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