It has been an uphill haul, but the agreement between 193 nations at the UN in New York last weekend on the first-ever treaty to protect the world’s oceans outside national 200 nautical mile limits is an important environmental conservation landmark.
The legal framework, the “Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction” treaty, likely to be known as the “High Seas Treaty”, was agreed after 20 years, in the fifth round of talks, and will provide the means to place 30 per cent of the world’s oceans into protected areas (MPAs). This is to protect against the loss of wildlife, put more money into marine conservation, and regulate access to and use of marine genetic resources. The treaty also aims to protect against potential impacts like deep sea mining.
Two-thirds of the world’s oceans are currently considered international waters with all countries having a right to fish, ship and do research there. They have a huge economic impact, with the OECD estimating that ocean-based industries contribute roughly €1.3 trillion to global gross value added. Until now only about 1 per cent of these waters – known as high seas – have been protected. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) nearly 10 per cent of marine species are threatened with extinction because of overfishing, acidification and warming due to climate change, and general pollution. Conservationists hope that the designation and protection of MPAs can begin to help their recovery.
The treaty is a much-needed start to conservation on the high seas. Without it, crucial targets agreed at COP15 would be impossible to achieve, such as the goal to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and sea by 2030, known as 30 by 30. But the treaty will require ratification by 60 states to come into force, a process which takes time, and the resources needed to create enforcement and governance mechanisms. The EU has contributed €40 million immediately and called on others to follow swiftly. Ireland, which has welcomed the agreement, should sign up.