The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet. They feed us, regulate our climate, and produce over half of the world's oxygen. Additionally, they have always served as a source of trade, commerce, and discovery.
To protect the future of the high seas, members of the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Seas(UNCLOS) are currently negotiating the UN Ocean Treaty, which would fill a significant gap in tackling pollution, mining, and fishing pressures for the first time in official records. Talks and negotiations on the final treaty were initially suspended in Autumn 2022 when a stalemate was reached. Delegations are now meeting in New York with a vision of hammering out a legally binding agreement by March 3rd.
Global agreements on ocean protection have been in place since 1982 when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed. According to the agreement, all countries would have access to high seas-international waters to fish, ship, and conduct research.
There is currently a fragmented approach to managing the oceans, which frequently favours destructive industries over the protection of the high seas. Nearly two-thirds of the world's oceans are in international waters, but only 2% are protected under the convention. This has led to an ever-growing concern over biodiversity. Due to rising population demands, increased shipping traffic, and climate change, marine life outside the 1.2% of protected areas are now at risk of extinction.
The UN biodiversity conference recently pledged to protect 30% of the world's oceans by 2030. To legally enforce this pledge, the global ocean treaty is necessary. Members of the UNCLOS hope that the Ocean Treaty will finally produce the agreement that environmental groups have long sought for the conservation and sustainable use of margin ecosystems.
During the negotiations, four key areas will be addressed: establishing marine protected areas, improving environmental impact assessments, providing financing and capacity development to developing countries, and sharing marine genetic resources and biological materials that can benefit society, such as pharmaceuticals, industrial processes, and food production.
All eyes will be on what the treaty will accomplish, but it is equally critical to identify what it will not accomplish. There will be no outline of areas to be protected under marine protection, but rather a description of how organisations and countries can apply for this protection. According to the treaty, developing nations will also not receive exact figures on how much financial support they will receive.
As the United Nations strives toward its 30 by 30 goal, this mechanism would facilitate the designation of marine protected areas and eventually establish a body that would accept submissions for specific marine protected areas.
Funding and enforcing the proposed measure will be a crucial topic of discussion among the nations. In the current draft proposal, a special fund has been proposed to support capacity building and the restoration of marine resources. Countries that sign the deal will be
expected to contribute to the fund, whether on a voluntary or mandatory basis. As in other UN negotiations, developing countries are anticipating stronger financial commitments from their wealthier neighbours.
Due to the different biodiversity goals of the nations involved, it is not surprising that there has been debate over the specifics of the agreement. This ranges from what constitutes genetic resources to how and where they will be accessed and collected, to the specific targets of the treaties, and how the benefits will be shared. The treaty talks have been divided into two camps as a result.
On the North side of the debate is the European Union. The union's member countries have remained vocal since the 2022 talks, demanding a fair and equitable share of benefits. As a significant player in marine technology today, the European Union has pivoted to place conservation above all else.
On the South side of the debate are industrialised countries with sophisticated technology. These countries have been accused by conservation groups of exploitatively wanting as few restrictions as possible in the treaty. There are four major powers on this side: the United States of America, Japan, Russia, and China.
In comparison to its south-side adversaries, China has traditionally preferred unrestricted access. Ambassadors of the nation have emphasised to the UN that any new international instrument should benefit humankind as a whole, suggesting that the proposed Ocean Treaty is a departure from what they consider a common heritage principle when it comes to the exploitation of high sea resources.
A vision of the future
The talks may still be ongoing, but it seems that this second round of discussions will have a more positive outcome than last year. Without some form of a treaty, all nations currently involved, despite continued disagreements, appear to agree that marine species will not only not be protected, but some will never be discovered before becoming extinct.