High Seas Treaty

High Time for High Sea Protection

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the high seas? Endless blue horizons, unimaginable depths, or elusive creatures like the blue whale – which, despite its enormous size, is as difficult to find in open ocean as a needle in a haystack?

Or perhaps your first thought is of pirates, plunder and lawlessness? All of these would be accurate, but hopefully that last part is about to change.

Two Thirds of the Ocean

The high seas refer to the two thirds of the oceans that lie outside the territorial boundary of any nation – which also means they are not within the national jurisdiction of any one country.

Governed by none, the high seas were open to plunder by all. And that is exactly what happened, with indiscriminate mining blasting the sea floor and rogue industrial fishing fleets hoovering up marine resources at a rate that left once-teaming waters depleted, and in some places quite lifeless.

But these waters just got an enormous boost with the UN High Seas Treaty. It’s a landmark moment for ocean conservation which aims to ensure collective responsibility for the oceans into the future and commits the world to protecting them.

Landmark for Ocean Conservation

This is great news for the oceans and everything that lives in them. It’s also great news for you. Ocean ecosystems produce half the oxygen we breathe. They are the world’s largest carbon sink. Protecting them is a lifeline for the human race.

But the High Seas Treaty is not an ending to celebrate; it’s the beginning of a new era of cooperation and collaboration.

When the treaty was signed after a marathon closed session last weekend, more than 120 nations had already heeded our 30x30 call for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. But without this new treaty, there was no hope for the pledge made at last December’s UN Biodiversity Conference, when nations committed to protect a third of both sea and land by 2030.

Multilateralism is a wonderful thing, and this new treaty, which was some 20 years in the making, is a triumph in that respect. But as anyone who has worked in a committee will know, decision making by consensus is a slow process. It took 12 years for the last big UN convention on oceans to actually come into force. We simply cannot afford to wait that long to ratify this one.

Time Pressures

We have just six-and-a-half years to meet the 2030 deadline. During that time it will be the responsibility of all of us, as citizens, and businesses, and environmentalists, to make this treaty work in practice.

We will need to pressure our governments to ratify, implement and enforce this agreement without delay. There are technical committees to convene, and definitions to tie down – the level of actual ‘protection’ in a Marine Protected Area being just one of those. We will need clarity and decisiveness when it comes to working out the details. These need to be considered carefully, but they cannot be decided slowly.

The starting gun has already gone off, and the finish line is fast approaching – whether or not we are up and running.

And somewhere out there in the vast deep ocean, a blue whale is being itself, blissfully unaware that it is among the 10% of global marine species now facing extinction.

Let’s make sure it never has to face that fact.

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