Efforts to approve a global treaty to protect the oceans are failing

Sea turtle swims in the ocean near the Philippines

A fifth attempt to pass a global agreement to protect the world’s oceans and marine life has failed.

Talks to ratify the UN Treaty on the High Seas have been ongoing for two weeks in New York, but governments have been unable to agree on terms.

Despite international waters representing nearly two-thirds of the world’s oceans, only 1.2% is protected.

Environmental activists have called it a “missed opportunity”.

The last international agreement to protect the oceans was signed 40 years ago in 1982 – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This agreement established an area called the high seas – international waters where all countries have the right to fish, sail and conduct research.

Marine life living outside the 1.2% of protected areas is at risk of exploitation from the growing threats of climate change, overfishing and shipping traffic.

Shark fins at a market in Hong Kong

Marine animals such as sharks are heavily fished for their meat and claimed to have medicinal properties

Over the past two weeks 168 members of the original treaty, including the EU, have come together to try to hammer out a new deal.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which documents the state of global biodiversity, spoke to BBC News during the conference.

Senior High Seas Advisor Kristina Gjerde explained why this treaty was so important: “The high seas are the vital blue heart of the planet.

“What happens on the high seas affects our coastal communities, affects our fisheries, affects our biodiversity – things we all care so much about.”

The negotiations focused on four main areas:

  • Creation of marine protected areas

  • Improving environmental impact assessments

  • Providing finance and capacity building in developing countries

  • Sharing of marine genetic resources – biological material from plants and animals in the ocean that can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food

More than 70 countries – including the UK – had already agreed before the meeting to place 30% of the world’s oceans in protected areas.

This would place limits on how much fishing can take place, the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities such as deep-sea mining.

Deep-sea mining is when minerals are taken from the seabed that is 200 meters or more below the surface. These minerals include cobalt used for electronics, but the process could also be toxic to marine life, according to the IUCN.

As of March 2022, the International Seabed Authority, which regulates these activities, had issued 31 contracts for deep-sea exploration for minerals.

However, the countries failed to reach an agreement on key issues of fishing rights, as well as financing and support for developing countries.

World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) senior ocean governance expert Jessica Battle – who took part in the negotiations – told BBC News that the Arctic was a divisive issue: “As it opens up due to climate change and we have much shorter winters, this will open up a whole new mining area.”

There are concerns that without this treaty, not only will marine species not be protected, but some species will never be discovered before they become extinct.

Bar graph showing the documentation of globally threatened species

Bar graph showing the documentation of globally threatened species

Research published earlier this year, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that between 10% and 15% of marine species are already at risk of extinction.

Sharks and rays are among the species that stand to lose from failure to pass the treaty.

According to the IUCN, they face a global extinction crisis – and are one of the most threatened species groups in the world.

Sharks and other migratory species such as turtles and whales move through the world’s oceans interacting with human activities such as shipping that can cause them serious injury and death.

All species of sharks and rays are also overfished – leading to rapid population decline.

Such a decline in animal numbers has been observed in most major marine groups.

Diagram showing the threat of extinction for various marine species

Diagram showing the threat of extinction for various marine species

It is not yet clear when the countries will come back together to resume negotiations – but a deadline of the end of the year has been set.

They have a full calendar of international meetings on other issues between now and January – including the annual COP27 climate conference and the UN General Assembly meeting.

If the treaty is signed, further work will still need to be done.

The treaty will not outline which areas of the ocean will be placed under marine protection – just the process by which organizations and countries can apply for it.

Similarly, the treaty is not expected to include precise figures on the financial support developing nations will receive from developed countries, Liz Karan Project Director for the Pews High Seas campaign told BBC News.

And Ms Karan said in the previous 1982 treaty there were promises of support that were not kept, and that has left some developing nations frustrated.

The fate of the oceans also depends on global action on climate change – which is decided as part of other UN negotiations.

The world’s oceans have absorbed 90% of the warming that has occurred due to the increase in greenhouse gases produced by human activities, according to NASA.

“Half of our planet that is open sea protects terrestrial life from the worst effects of climate change,” said Professor Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford, UK, who provided evidence to inform the treaty process. of the UN.

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