Historic pact reached to protect oceans as 10-year stalemate ends

Tuesday March 14 2023
World ocean

Atlantic ocean's waves are pictured off in Lege-Cap Ferret, Southwestern France on March 11, 2022. UN member states on March 4, 2023 agreed to a text on the first international treaty after 10 years of negotiations to protect the high seas. PHOTO | OLIVIER MORIN | AFP


Nations have reached a historic agreement to protect the world’s oceans following 10 years of negotiations.

The High Seas Treaty agreement was reached on the evening of March 11, 2023 at the United Nations headquarters in New York after 38 hours of talks.

The negotiations had been held up for years over disagreements on funding and fishing rights.

The last international agreement on ocean protection, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, was signed in 1982. It established an area called the high seas, international waters where all countries had a right to fish, ship and do research. However, only 1.2 percent of these waters were protected.

Chinese fishing boats

Chinese fishing boats tied to fishing trawlers at Indian Ocean at the Kenyan coast on July 19, 2021. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG

Marine life outside these protected areas has been at risk from climate change, overfishing and shipping traffic.


Read: Yellow-band disease hits Thai coral reefs

In the latest assessment of global marine species, nearly 10 percent were found to be at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Achieving global goal

The High Seas Treaty establishes marine protected areas in these high seas will help achieve the global goal of protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans, made at the UN biodiversity conference last year. These areas will limit how much fishing can take place, the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities like deep sea mining.

Environmental groups are concerned that mining processes could disturb animal breeding grounds, create noise pollution and be toxic for marine life.

Read: Climate change: King penguins’ new threat

The International Seabed Authority that oversees licensing told the BBC that any future activity in the deep seabed would be subject to strict regulations and an oversight would ensure they are carried out sustainably and responsibly.

Rena Lee, UN Ambassador for Oceans, brought down the gavel after two weeks of negotiations that at times threatened to unravel as they tussled over the sharing of marine genetic resources.

Marine genetic resources are biological material from plants and animals in the ocean that can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food.


The Great Barrier Reef, a massive stretch of coral teeming with marine life, off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, along the central coast of Queensland, Australia. PHOTO | AFP

Differences aside

Richer nations have the resources and funding to explore the deep ocean, but poorer nations wanted to ensure any benefits they find are shared equally.

Dr Robert Blasiak, ocean researcher at Stockholm University, said the challenge was that no one knew how much ocean resources were worth and therefore how they could be split.

“If you imagine a big, high-definition, widescreen TV, and if only like three or four of the pixels on that giant screen are working, that’s our knowledge of the deep ocean. So, we have recorded about 230,000 species in the ocean, but it is estimated that there are over two million,” Blasiak said.

Laura Meller, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic, commended countries for putting aside differences and delivering a treaty that would let them protect the oceans, build resilience to climate change as well as safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.

“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” she added.

Countries will need to meet again to formally adopt the agreement and then have plenty of work to do before the treaty can be implemented.

Liz Karan, director of Pews Trust Ocean governance team, told the BBC that it would take some time for the pact to take effect and countries had to ratify for it to enter force.

She also added that there were a lot of institutional bodies like the Science and Technical Committee that had to get set up.