UN adopts historic deal to protect high seas

A tiger shark in the Bahamas. (Gerald Schömbs/Unsplash)

After 20 years of stalled talks, UN member states struck a historic deal to protect international waters and the biodiversity they host. What's behind this ambitious goal?

“The ship has reached the shore,” said Rena Lee, Singaporean ambassador for the oceans and chair of the debates in New York. It took 38 hours to end more than 15 years of negotiations to produce the first major international agreement since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982.

Lauded as historic by environmental groups and other observers, the high seas treaty will be key to preserving 30 per cent of the world's oceans by 2030, in line with commitments made by countries at the Cop15 biodiversity summit in Montreal in December.

“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, concern for protecting nature and people can trump geopolitics,” Laura Meller, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic, said in a press release.

Delegates cheered after finalising the agreement at UN headquarters in New York on 4 March, one day after the initial deadline. Talks were reportedly held up until the last minute over marine genetic resources and their potential benefits, such as biotechnology, as developed and developing countries refused to compromise over their diverging positions.

Developed countries, which typically have the technology and the means to explore and exploit the ocean for new resources, agreed in the end to share monetary and non-monetary benefits as well as set up a fund.

Read also: Ocean protection goals on the line as UN meets for high seas treaty talks

The ocean is home to nearly 242,000 known species and feeds around three billion people worldwide, not to mention its key role in regulating the climate. But climate change, pollution, shipping, overfishing and other human activities are causing lasting damage to marine habitats.

In a major achievement at the biodiversity summit in Montreal in December, countries agreed on a series of targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, including protecting 30 per cent of oceans by 2030.

With the high seas making up two-thirds of the ocean’s surface, agreeing on rules to govern the waters beyond 200 nautical miles off national coastlines will be crucial to achieving the target, according to observers.

For now, less than eight per cent of the ocean is under some sort of protection. For the high seas, the number is even lower, with a mere one per cent of it being part of a marine protected area.

Pepe Clarke, global ocean practice leader for WWF, said in a statement: “Last year, nations committed to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030. Today’s achievement is a significant step toward delivering on that promise.”

The high seas treaty, which will be legally binding, has to be ratified by 60 countries before it can enter into force.

A longer version of this article appeared first in French in Heidi.news. It has been adapted by Geneva Solutions.