What is the UN High Seas Treaty and why is it needed?

Humpback whale underwater looks towards the camera

A historic treaty to protect the world’s oceans was agreed.

The UN High Seas Treaty places 30% of the world’s oceans in protected areas, invests more money in marine protection and means new rules for mining at sea.

What is the high seas?

Two-thirds of the world’s oceans are currently considered international waters.

That means all countries have the right to fish, ship and research there.

But so far only about 1% of these waters, known as high seas, are protected.

This puts the marine life that inhabits the vast majority of the high seas at risk of being exploited by threats such as climate change, overfishing and shipping.

Which marine species are endangered?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the most recent assessment of marine species found that almost 10% are threatened with extinction.

dr Ngozi Oguguah, Chief Research Officer at the Nigerian Institute For Oceanography and Marine Research said: “The two biggest causes [of extinction] are overfishing and pollution. If we have marine protected areas, most marine resources will have time to recover.”

Abalone species – a species of shellfish – sharks and whales have come under particular pressure due to their high value as seafood and for medicines.

Dugong swims just below the surface of the water and blows bubbles

Dugongs were once common marine creatures, but fewer than 1000 live in the wild today

The IUCN estimates that 41% of threatened species are also affected by climate change.

Minna Epps, Head of the Ocean Team at IUCN, said: “Just over a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted is actually absorbed by the ocean. That makes the ocean much more acidic, which means it will be less productive and will certainly endanger species and ecosystems.”

Climate change has also increased ocean heat waves by a factor of 20, according to a study published in the journal Science – which can cause extreme events such as hurricanes but also mass die-offs.

Ms Epps said tackling the problem of marine climate change requires the implementation of other global agreements such as the Paris Agreement.

She said: “This is a real reason for synergy and collaboration between these different multilateral agreements that we are increasingly seeing within the UN climate change conventions.”

Bar chart showing documentation of endangered species worldwide

Bar chart showing documentation of endangered species worldwide

The agreement also aims to protect against potential impacts such as deep-sea mining. This is the process of collecting minerals from the seabed.

Environmental groups are seriously concerned about the potential impacts of mining, such as B. disturbing sediments, creating noise pollution and damaging breeding sites.

What does the deep sea treaty say?

The headline news is the agreement to convert 30% of the world’s international waters into Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2030.

However, the level of protection in these areas has been hotly debated and remains unresolved.

dr Simon Walmsley, WWF-UK Marine Chief Advisor, said: “There has been a particular debate about what a Marine Protected Area is. Is it sustainable use or fully protected?”.

Whatever form of protection is agreed, when that happens, there will be restrictions on how much fishing can take place, the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities such as deep-sea mining.

Other important measures are:

  • Agreements to share marine genetic resources, such as B. Biological material from plants and animals in the sea. These can have benefits for society such as: B. Medicines and food

  • Environmental impact assessment requirements for deep sea activities such as mining

Buyers inspect tuna at the Katsuura Tuna Market on the Kii Peninsula, the premium tuna auction in Japan

Marine protected areas will be subject to restrictions or total bans on fishing to limit the loss of marine species

Richer nations have also pledged new money to fulfill the treaty.

The EU on Thursday announced almost 820 million euros (£722.3 million) for international marine protection.

However, developing countries were disappointed that a specific amount of funding was included in the text.

Will this make a difference?

Despite the breakthrough in agreeing the treaty, there is still a long way to go before it is legally agreed.

The treaty must first be approved at a later meeting, and will then only “enter into force” once enough countries have signed it and adopted it into law in their own countries.

dr Simon Walmsley said: “There’s a really delicate balance, if you don’t have enough states it’s not going to come into effect. But you also need to provide states with enough money to make the impact. We’re thinking about 40 states to put the whole thing into effect.”

Russia was one of the countries that raised concerns about the final text.

Countries then need to start examining in practice how these measures would be implemented and managed.

IUCN’s Ms Epps said this implementation is crucial. If marine protected areas are not properly connected, this may not have the desired effect as many species are migratory and able to migrate across unprotected areas where they are at risk.

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