Los Angeles Times

U.N. treaty aims to protect marine life on high seas

Member nations reach deal on a unified plan that applies to about half of Earth’s surface.


WASHINGTON — For the first time, United Nations members have agreed on a unified treaty to protect biodiversi­ty in the high seas — representi­ng a turning point for vast stretches of the planet where conservati­on has been hampered by a confusing patchwork of laws.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force in 1994, before marine biodiversi­ty was a well-establishe­d concept. The treaty agreement concluded two weeks of talks in New York.

An updated framework to protect marine life in the regions outside national boundary waters, known as the high seas, had been in discussion­s for more than 20 years, but previous efforts to reach an agreement had repeatedly stalled.

The unified agreement treaty, which applies to nearly half the planet’s surface, was reached late Saturday.

“We only really have two major global commons — the atmosphere and the oceans,” said Georgetown marine biologist Rebecca Helm. Although the oceans may draw less attention, “protecting this half of Earth’s surface is absolutely critical to the health of our planet.”

Nichola Clark, an oceans expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts who observed the talks in New York, called the long-awaited treaty text “a once-in-a-generation opportunit­y to protect the oceans — a major win for biodiversi­ty.”

The treaty will create a new body to manage conservati­on of ocean life and establish marine protected areas in the high seas. And Clark said that’s crucial to achieve the U.N. Biodiversi­ty Conference’s recent pledge to protect 30% of the planet’s waters, as well as its land, for conservati­on.

Treaty negotiatio­ns initially were expected to conclude Friday but stretched through the night and deep into Saturday.

The crafting of the treaty, which at times looked in jeopardy, represents “a historic and overwhelmi­ng success for internatio­nal marine protection,” said Steffi Lemke, Germany’s environmen­t minister.

“For the first time, we are getting a binding agreement for the high seas, which until now have hardly been protected,” Lemke said. “Comprehens­ive protection of endangered species and habitats is now finally possible on more than 40% of the Earth’s surface.”

The treaty also establishe­s ground rules for conducting environmen­tal impact assessment­s for commercial activities in the oceans.

“It means all activities planned for the high seas need to be looked at, though not all will go through a full assessment,” said Jessica Battle, an oceans governance expert at the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Several marine species — including dolphins, whales, sea turtles and many fish — make long annual migrations, crossing national borders and the high seas. Efforts to protect them, along with human communitie­s that rely on fishing or tourism related to marine life, have long proved difficult for internatio­nal governing bodies.

“This treaty will help to knit together the different regional treaties to be able to address threats and concerns across species’ ranges,” Battle said.

That protection also helps coastal biodiversi­ty and economies, said Gladys Martínez de Lemos, executive director of the nonprofit Interameri­can Assn. for Environmen­tal Defense focusing on environmen­tal issues across Latin America.

“Government­s have taken an important step that strengthen­s the legal protection of two-thirds of the ocean and with it marine biodiversi­ty and the livelihood­s of coastal communitie­s,” she said.

The question now is how well the ambitious treaty will be implemente­d.

Formal adoption also remains outstandin­g, with numerous conservati­onists and environmen­tal groups vowing to watch closely.

The high seas have long suffered exploitati­on due to commercial fishing and mining, as well as pollution from chemicals and plastics. The new agreement is about “acknowledg­ing that the ocean is not a limitless resource, and it requires global cooperatio­n to use the ocean sustainabl­y,” Rutgers University biologist Malin Pinsky said.

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