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Over 190 Countries Reach Historic Deal to Protect Oceans

historic deal to protect oceans
Over 190 Countries Reach Historic Deal to Protect Oceans. Credit: Derek Keats / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A landmark agreement to preserve the health of the world’s oceans was finally agreed upon by the world’s governments after ten years of discussion and debate. The High Seas Treaty intends to preserve and restore marine ecosystems by designating 30% of the ocean’s surface as protected zones by the year 2030.

After 38 hours of discussion at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, the deal was finalized on Saturday evening. The conflicts around money and fishing rights have stalled the discussions for years, preventing them from moving ahead.

Creation of New Protected Zones

The new protected zones that will be created as a result of the pact will set restrictions on the amount of fishing that can be done, the paths that shipping lanes may follow, and research operations such as deep-sea mining.

Concerns have been raised by environmental organizations over the potential for mining operations to obstruct animal mating sites, cause noise pollution, and be harmful to marine life. According to the International Seabed Authority, “any future activity in the deep seabed will be subject to strict environmental regulations and oversight to ensure that it is carried out sustainably and responsibly.”

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was the last international agreement on marine conservation to be signed, and it did so exactly four decades ago, in 1982. This agreement created a space known as the high seas, which are waters considered to be international and where all nations have the freedom to fish, sail, and conduct research.

Nevertheless, only 1.2% of these waters are considered to be protected. The effects of climate change, excessive fishing, and shipping traffic have put marine species that live outside of these protected regions in jeopardy.

Recent Study By IUCN

According to the results of the most recent study, conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), approximately 10% of the world’s marine species are now threatened with extinction.

Marine genetic resources were the main issue of contention during the negotiations. The biological material from plants and animals that live in the water is known as marine genetic resources.

Marine genetic resources may have advantages for civilization in the form of drugs, industrial operations, and even food. The means and finance necessary to investigate the deep ocean are now in the possession of richer countries. Nevertheless, poorer nations want to guarantee that any advantages discovered are shared evenly.

An ocean researcher at Stockholm University named Dr. Robert Blasiak described the difficulty: no one knows the full extent of ocean assets and, consequently, how they may be divided.

He said, “If you imagine a big, high-definition, widescreen TV, and if only like three or four of the pixels on that giant screen are working, that’s our knowledge of the deep ocean. So we’ve recorded about 230,000 species in the ocean, but it’s estimated that there are over two million.”

Equitable Distribution of Marine Resources

After two weeks of deliberations, which at various points seemed on the verge of falling apart, Rena Lee, the UN Ambassador for Oceans, called a halt. According to Minna Epps, head of the IUCN Ocean team, the most pressing concern is with the equitable distribution of marine genetic resources.

An oceans activist for Greenpeace Nordic named Laura Meller praised governments for their efforts and for “putting aside differences and delivering a treaty that will let us protect the oceans, build our resilience to climate change and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.”

She further said, “This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics.”

The parties to the historic deal to protect oceans will have to reconvene in order to officially approve it, and after that, there will be a significant amount of work before the treaty can be put into effect.

Liz Karan, the director of Pew Trust’s ocean governance team said, “It will take some time to take effect. Countries have to ratify it [legally adopt it] for it to enter force. Then there are a lot of institutional bodies like the Science and Technical Committee that have to get set up.”

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