Historic treaty could open the way to protecting 30% of the oceans | Science –
After 2 weeks of intense negotiations, countries agreed this week on a historic treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters. The agreement, announced on 4 March at the United Nations, sets up a legal process for establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), a key tool for protecting at least 30% of the ocean, which an intergovernmental convention recently set as a target for 2030. The treaty also gives poorer countries a stake in conservation by strengthening their research capacity and creating a framework for sharing financial rewards from the DNA of marine organisms.
“It’s a big win for the marine environment,” says Kristina Gjerde, senior high seas adviser to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “These were hard fought battles,” adds Jeremy Raguain, former climate change and ocean adviser for the mission of the Seychelles to the United Nations.
The high seas encompass the 60% of the oceans outside national waters. For decades, environmental groups have argued for protecting these waters from fishing, shipping, and other activities. But the existing legal framework, based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), doesn’t set out ways to preserve biodiversity in the high seas. As a result, just 1% are highly protected, mostly in the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean, where a protected area was created under an Antarctic treaty. Much high seas biodiversity, including seamounts and areas rich in migratory animals such as the Sargasso Sea, is left out.
Formal talks on a new treaty began in 2018, but negotiators stumbled repeatedly on issues such as environmental impact assessments and the sharing of profits from products derived from high seas organisms. This round of negotiations went into late-night overtime, with observers not sure whether they would cross the finish line. “It was quite a roller coaster ride,” says Lance Morgan, who leads the Marine Conservation Institute.
The treaty, which will enter into force once 60 nations have ratified it, would require a three-quarters vote of member countries to establish an MPA. That’s a much lower threshold than the unanimous approval required under the Antarctic treaty. “No one country can hold up the will of the world to create a high seas protected area,” says Liz Karan, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’s ocean governance project. Nations can opt out of an MPA—and continue to fish there, for example—but Karan says only a few reasons will be permissible, and any country opting out must offer measures to mitigate the harm.
The treaty sets up a new forum for international deliberations, called a conference of the parties (COP), that will work with existing ocean authorities representing commercial interests, including fishing and seafloor mining. That collaboration could limit the chance of declaring an MPA in a heavily fished area, for example, but could also encourage efforts to limit harm to marine life from commercial activities. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” says Guillermo Ortuño Crespo, a marine scientist and independent research consultant, “but now we have a space to have these difficult conversations.”
The treaty will require new uses of the high seas, such as offshore aquaculture, or geoengineering to capture carbon dioxide, to undergo environmental impact assessments (EIAs). But conservationists are disappointed that the new COP won’t have the power to approve EIAs—or say no to development. “We would have liked to see more oversight,” Karan says. But Gjerde says the EIAs will help improve ocean management. “This is such a critical tool.”
How to share the wealth from new drugs or industrial chemicals developed from the DNA of marine organisms has also been a point of contention. Following plans that nations adopted in December 2022 for national genetic resources under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the treaty calls for creating a central database in which companies or universities must record patents, papers, or products based on high seas samples or data. Countries using DNA sequences or genetic resources would then pay into a fund, depending on their usage, that would be used for marine conservation and for building capacity in other countries.
“It’s elegant, because it’s relatively simple,” says Siva Thambisetty, an expert in intellectual property law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an adviser to the chair of a coalition of 134 developing countries. “Developing countries want a respectful settlement,” she adds. “Nobody wants a handout.”
The treaty also includes provisions that will help developing nations explore and tap the biodiversity of the high seas, says Harriet Harden-Davies, an expert on ocean governance at the University of Edinburgh, who advised the IUCN delegation. For example, it will set up an international notification system for upcoming research cruises. That could make it easier to get scientists from developing countries on board as team members. “This is a win-win solution for scientists in small island nations,” which are often close to biodiversity hot spots and thus potential marine resources, says Judith Gobin, a marine biologist at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and a member of the Caribbean delegation.
It’s not clear whether the United States Senate, which never ratified UNCLOS, will back the new treaty. But Harden-Davies expects many nations will, within months, start the process of bringing the treaty into effect. Then, scientists, conservationists, and diplomats will need to move on to the challenge of implementing it, says Pat Halpin, a marine scientist at Duke University. “We have to pull our boots up and get to work.”