The 193 countries of the United Nations have agreed to a one-of-a-kind treaty to protect the biodiversity of the world’s oceans: a big step towards a goal that has been decades in the making. The agreement, which was reached at the UN headquarters in New York over the weekend, has yet to be formally adopted by the intergovernmental organization and ratified by its individual member countries.
For more than a century, the oceans have served as a de facto dumping ground for industrializing nations. Rich countries like the United States, which dump their plastic and other waste into the sea, rely on the ocean to soak up vast amounts of carbon emissions as they explore its depths for offshore shellfish and fossil fuels. As a result, the oceans have become increasingly warm, acidic and polluted, endangering the vast marine ecosystems that used to thrive below the surface. The UN began talks to adopt a legal framework to protect the ocean in 2004, but disagreements over which parts of the ocean should be protected, how rich and developing nations share marine resources and how fossil fuel companies should navigate environmental regulations Tighter marinas delayed agreement until now.
“Our ocean has been under pressure for decades,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said on Wednesday, urging members to reach an agreement. “We can no longer ignore the ocean emergency.”
The “high seas,” a classification that begins 200 nautical miles off the coast of most nations, is not controlled by any country. A mosaic of laws and agreements that govern those waters, and aim to regulate shipping, fishing and other human activities. The treaty, if ratified, will establish a new set of rules on the high seas aimed at protecting marine species and the balance of their ecosystems.
The agreement would establish a new group within the UN in charge of ocean conservation management and would require detailed environmental impact assessments for all new activities on the high seas, including tourism. The treaty would also create areas within the ocean that are protected from human activity. Establishing marine sanctuaries where oceanic species, some of which have yet to be discovered by humans, can thrive undisturbed is key to the UN commitment last year conserve 30 percent of the planet’s land and water by 2030.
“The high seas are especially vulnerable to climate change,” Doug McCauley, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Grist in March. “They are affected by changes in ocean temperature, ocean warming, and ocean acidification. These protected areas could at least create some breathing space for species in the face of this climate threat.”
High seas health is intrinsically linked to human health and well-being. About half of the oxygen we breathe is produced by microscopic plants that live in the ocean. Billions of people around the world rely on the ocean for food. And, in the longer term, marine species could provide scientists with genetic material that could help treat diseases. (Which countries will benefit from these as-yet-undiscovered scientific advances was one of the issues that stalled negotiations in previous efforts to reach an international ocean agreement.) Saturday’s agreement marks a historic step toward protecting the ocean and humans. of climate change, pollution and other threats of the 21st century.
“There is a huge body of evidence on how we can restore the health of the oceans,” Will McCallum, head of oceans at environmental non-profit organization Greenpeace UK, told Grist last year. “The ocean has a remarkable ability to recover.”
Joseph Winters contributed reporting to this story.
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