The UN High Seas Treaty: Conserving Our Oceans

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After nearly two decades of discussion, United Nations member states drafted an agreement to protect marine biodiversity in international waters. The UN signed the High Seas Treaty on March 5th. It marks a great advancement towards mitigating the climate change crisis and accomplishing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This new treaty goes in hand with the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework, which pledged to protect 30% of the planet’s waters by 2030, known as the ‘30×30’. 

Why is This Important? 

Oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. Yet, many underestimate what this implies. The ocean is one of the most significant life sources on Earth, not only for the millions of species it is home to but also for humans. Apart from providing us with sustenance, oceans generate roughly half of the oxygen we breathe. If this ecosystem remains unprotected, both marine wildlife and humans are at risk.

Many countries have implemented laws to regulate the waters of their coasts. That being said, this perimeter only extends to 22.2 kilometers from shore. After that, high seas are completely unregulated. In other words, the high seas are vulnerable to overfishing, pollution, bioprospecting, and deep-sea drilling for fossil fuels.

What Does the Treaty Promise?

After increased concerns over the past few decades, the UN High Seas Treaty was born. It is the first international law to protect nearly two-thirds of the ocean.Some regulations set in the treaty include:

  • The capacity to establish marine protected areas.
  • Genetic resources of the high seas must benefit all of humanity. When exploiting these resources, countries must pay a proportion of their profits to a global fund to protect the high seas.
  • Invest more funds into marine conservation.
  • Companies and projects have to undergo an environmental impact assessment.
  • Facilitates research opportunities for low and middle-income countries. In addition, researchers must declare their intentions and commit to making the data open to access. 

The Other Side 

Apart from the positive advancements that this treaty is bringing, there is a negative face to the coin. The treaty does not overrule regulations set by authorities that oversee existing high seas activities. This means that the treaty exempts, or does not apply to, commercial shipping activities, deep sea mining, existing regulated fisheries, and military activity. For example, fishing agreements already present in certain areas prevent the treaty from creating protected areas there, even if the fishing practices are unsustainable. It is important to mention that the treaty also does not regulate offshore environmental violations such as plastic, farming waste, or sewage from cruise ships. 

Taking all into consideration, ambiguity remains. A concrete international effort to protect the high seas is a major advancement toward its resolution. Be that as it may, it requires the proper collaboration of all nations and institutions in order to make sure that the goals are achieved. Especially when considering that many things are still unregulated. The real question does not lie in whether the UN High Nations Treaty will save 30% of the oceans, but whether humans are capable of leaving their economic interests aside and contributing with proper action.

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