NEW YORK—Late last night, countries gathering at the United Nations announced they had come to an agreement on a new treaty that fills a major gap in our collective ability to protect the high seas, the enormous ocean area that lies beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation.
“If implemented, this treaty marks a major win for marine species and ecosystems,” says Susanna Fuller, Vice-President of Operations and Projects at Oceans North. “The high seas are an incredibly important part of our planet, and being able to put in place marine protected areas and limit activities that cause biodiversity loss is essential.”
The treaty comes on the heels of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, in which countries set a target to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030. Scientists widely agree that reaching this goal will not be possible without a strong high seas treaty, given that the high seas cover 64 percent of the ocean.
Negotiations formally began in 2018 and for the last two weeks, 193 countries have been at the UN headquarters trying to finalize a deal. Because the high seas don’t belong to any country, these global commons are at risk of being overexploited and underprotected without an agreed framework.
Key aspects of the treaty include area-based protections and environmental impact assessments. Additionally, the agreement covers access and benefit-sharing of marine genetic resources, capacity development, and technology transfer—foundational to reaching equity between developed and developing states. “The new treaty will be legally binding once it is in force—which we expect to take about three years—and it gives us the tools to protect our ocean in a way that benefits everyone,” Fuller says.
Canada showed important leadership throughout the process and facilitated negotiations around the Area-Based Management Tool section, an essential part of the treaty that will allow countries to protect vital high-seas ecosystems. “Our country now has an opportunity to take its domestic leadership on ocean issues into international waters,” says Fuller. “Canada should act quickly to ratify the treaty and work with other countries to provide support and capacity to advance protection in some of the most vulnerable areas of our global commons.”
There remain some outstanding threats to the high seas. An important meeting of the International Seabed Authority will be held later this month, where countries will discuss whether or not deep-sea mining should go ahead—a destructive industry that would have a serious impact on the health of the ocean. The new treaty should ensure that biodiversity protection is front and centre in those discussions.
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