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U.N. Moved to Protect 60% of the Ocean and the World Hardly Noticed

After years of talks, the U.N. has taken a major step toward an international treaty to preserve the biodiversity of the high seas to combat climate change, overfishing and plastic pollution.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Humpback whale jumping marine sanctuary of hawaii
A humpback whale breaches in the Pacific Ocean.Robert Valarcher/Biosphoto

Around 9:15 p.m., on Friday, July 21, the United Nations quietly took a major step toward protecting nearly half the planet’s surface. Most people, though, probably didn’t even notice. There were no television news cameras or celebrity activists on hand in a windowless meeting room at U.N. headquarters in New York City when delegates agreed to recommend that the body’s General Assembly begin negotiations as “soon as possible” on an international treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas.

The move, which ended two weeks of sometimes contentious talks to hash out the major elements of the treaty, could result in far-reaching protections for marine life through the creation of reserves and other actions designed to blunt threats to ocean health from climate changeover-fishing and pollution. The high seas constitute the nearly 60 percent of the ocean beyond any nation’s jurisdiction. They play a crucial role in the global climate, food supply and economy, yet are largely beyond the reach of the law.

The U.N. in 2015 established a two-year “preparatory committee” process where countries would try to reach consensus on four major elements of a high-seas biodiversity treaty: the creation of marine protected areas, the sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources, environmental impact assessments and the transfer of marine technology to developing nations.

Complete consensus was out of reach as the fourth and final “PrepCom” meeting concluded Friday. Developing nations and some industrial nations split over mechanisms for creating and enforcing marine reserves, how environment impact assessments should be conducted and other issues, according to daily reports filed by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a service that covers U.N. proceedings. Russia, which emerged as the country most resistant to a strong high seas accord, had even objected to PrepCom making a recommendation to begin treaty negotiations in its report to the U.N. General Assembly. In the end, though, agreement was reached for PrepCom to make a recommendation that the General Assembly begin treaty negotiations, but without a specific 2018 start date that a majority of the delegates wanted.

“It’s absolutely strong enough to move things forward,” said Liz Karan, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect ocean life on the high seas. “Getting a recommendation by consensus is no small feat.”

“When the PrepCom process was launched, some were hopeful that the end result would look closer like a treaty,” she added. “But many countries were not willing to negotiate too much on their core asks before treaty negotiations begin.”

Still, the PrepCom negotiations, which came a month after the U.N. held its first ever Ocean Conference to build momentum for marine protection, disappointed some ocean advocates.

“The lack of ambition in many is disheartening,” Jessica Battle, global ocean policy manager at WWF International, wrote in a post on LinkedIn after the first week of PrepCom negotiations. “Instead, countries who at the Ocean Conference committed to … the globally adopted sustainable development goal for the ocean, are now rather reluctant to help create the framework we need for turning this goal into reality, including through protected areas and other protection measures.”

Like Karan, Karen Sack, managing director of environmental group Ocean Unite, is a veteran of international negotiations on ocean issues and attended the PrepCom talks. “It would have been better from the perspective of someone who advocates for action to secure ocean health if the text that was agreed to and the momentum to move forward was stronger, clearer and more robust,” said Sack. “But when you’re dealing with 193 countries, that’s difficult to achieve.”

“It’s clear that there are some tough issues that remain to be discussed in the treaty negotiations,” she added.

The PrepCom report, which is expected to be sent to the U.N. General Assembly in December, will list issues that “generated convergence among most delegations.” Another section will identify issues where “there is a divergence of views.” For instance, the report reflects a general consensus on the broad issues a treaty should address in regard to marine protected areas, but gives no specific recommendations on how those reserves would be proposed, created, reviewed or enforced.

The global divide is a familiar one. The G77 group of developing nations, Pacific island states, Caribbean nations and Latin American countries pushed for strong ocean protections and a recognition that the ocean is a common heritage whose benefits should be shared. Russia, Japan, the United States and, at times, China, favored a freedom of the seas approach that privileges national sovereignty.

The move to expand protections for the high seas comes as some developed countries are proposing to shrink marine protected areas in their territorial waters. The Australian government last week announced a plan to dramatically expand commercial fishing in marine reserves while the Trump administration is considering cutting marine protected areas to allow oil and gas drilling. Several Pacific island nations, meanwhile, are putting huge areas of their Exclusive Economic Zones off-limits to fishing in an effort to protect coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

What’s next: By the end of the year, the U.N. General Assembly will review the PrepCom report and decide whether to convene an Intergovernmental Conference to negotiate the specifics of a high seas biodiversity treaty. Ocean advocates, perhaps optimistically, hope the talks would conclude by 2019.

“If we can negotiate international treaties around nuclear weapons, we certainly can create a treaty on preserving ocean biodiversity,” said Sack.

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