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In the wake of collapsed U.N.-backed talks, ocean defenders this week are urging global governments to reach a robust treaty by year’s end to safeguard the world’s high seas from exploitation and the climate crisis.
“Government promises to protect at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030 are already coming off the rails,” Will McCallum of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said in a statement Monday.
A failure to reach a Global Ocean Treaty in 2022 would mean “no way to create ocean sanctuaries in international waters to allow them to achieve that 30×30 goal,” he said. “This treaty is crucial because all of us rely on the oceans: from the oxygen they give to the livelihoods and food security they provide.”
The comments came after a fourth round of talks—previously delayed because of Covid-19—ended Friday in New York without a binding agreement.
McCallum decried “the glacial pace” of the U.N. talks and said “the lack of agreement on a number of key issues just doesn’t reflect the urgency of the situation”
“Climate breakdown is transforming our oceans,” he continued. “Wildlife populations are declining. And as industrial fishing empties the seas of life, coastal communities around the world are seeing their livelihoods and food security threatened. These aren’t hypotheticals, our oceans are in crisis right now and in dire need of a rescue plan.”
Several issues were on the table during the negotiations on the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) treaty, as Mongabay reported:
Delegates from the 193 U.N. member states attended the recent talks, trying to iron out kinks across four key areas: equitably sharing of marine genetic resources (MGRs); implementing area-based management tools like marine protected areas (MPAs); setting standards for environmental impact assessments for activities on the high seas; and assisting developing countries to effectively meet treaty objectives by sharing knowledge and marine technology with them.
“Frankly, they ran out of time,” Liz Karan, project director of the high seas conservation program at Washington, D.C.-based public policy group Pew Charitable Trusts, told Mongabay. “There was no one issue that prevented final agreement, but rather the pace of negotiations was slow and not all the draft text was even able to be discussed.”
“Poorer countries fear they will be sidelined as wealthier nations scour the seas for the next wonder ingredients for the pharmaceutical, chemical, or cosmetic industries, and lock up the spoils in trademarks and patents,” AFP additionally noted.
Representing about 64% of the ocean’s surface, the high seas, a global commons, are not covered by any single nation’s jurisdiction and are sometimes referred to as a “Wild Wild West”—thus the need for an international mechanism to protect the marine biodiversity worldwide. As Bloomberg reported Friday:
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea sets rules for shipping, seabed mining, and other activities in international waters.
But the word “biodiversity” does not appear in the 1982 treaty. While it promotes the protection of the marine environment, it provides no mechanism to assess the environmental impact on marine life of industrial fishing and other exploitative activities that were not envisioned when the agreement was negotiated.
Carolina Hazin, marine policy coordinator for BirdLife International who was at the two-week U.N. talks, called the treaty “the missing link for effective conservation of marine biodiversity” and likened the current governance gap to a “jigsaw puzzle where you just have the outer pieces of the board, but none to fill in the middle.”
“The high seas occupy almost half of the globe and we are watching biodiversity being threatened and lost right in front of our eyes,” she said. “They are responsible for the future and fate of this blue planet, Earth.”
Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance—a partnership of over 40 organizations as well as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—said that many governments arrived at the talks “with a renewed sense of urgency” following the delay caused by the pandemic. However, she added, “we have not reached the treaty goal yet. All efforts must be devoted in the coming months to secure this long-awaited treaty in 2022.”
Greenpeace’s McCallum echoed that urgency.
“A further round of ocean negotiations later this year can’t afford to be a talking shop,” he said. “To overcome the lack of consensus on key issues in the treaty, ministers and heads of state need to be proactively and consistently meeting to map out how they can successfully negotiate the treaty our oceans desperately need in 2022.”
“Anything less,” said McCallum, “is a failure.”