Southeast Asian and Pacific leaders applaud first-ever global ocean treaty

UN-backed pact is aimed at protecting threatened marine biodiversity.
By Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA
2023.03.07
Bangkok
Southeast Asian and Pacific leaders applaud first-ever global ocean treaty A whale shark swims next to volunteer divers after they removed abandoned fishing net that was covering a coral reef in a protected area of Ko Losin, Thailand, June 19, 2021.
Credit: Reuters

Southeast Asian and Pacific leaders are hailing an ambitious United Nations treaty to protect ocean life by establishing protected areas in international waters.

Some 193 countries agreed to the legal framework on Saturday night. It comes as ocean life faces growing threats from climate change, overfishing, shipping traffic and seabed mining on the high seas.

“Only 1% of the high seas is currently protected,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Twitter. This “is a timely achievement & major milestone in the conservation & sustainable use of biodiversity in our oceans. It will go a long way towards protecting our global commons.”

The treaty is a culmination of UN-facilitated talks that began in 2004. It’s also a crucial first step to meet a goal set in December at the Biodiversity COP15 in Montreal to protect 30% of the planet by the end of this decade in an agreement known as “30 by 30.”

Achieving this objective would have been “a fantasy” without the treaty, said marine conservation scientist Daniel Dunn, since there were no established legal processes for creating marine protected areas on the high seas. 

The treaty establishes a global framework for sharing ocean resources and managing marine ecosystems, including thorough environmental impact assessments on the potential damage of proposed commercial activities, such as deep-sea mining, before the start of such projects.

The ocean is considered crucial in the fight against the climate crisis, as ocean temperatures continue to rise and threaten marine life. Scientists say ocean ecosystems create half the oxygen humans breathe and limit global warming by absorbing much of the carbon dioxide.

Nearly 10% of marine species are at risk of extinction, according to an IUCN report in December, while climate change affects 41% of these threatened species. 

Slow, ‘eye-watering’ negotiations

For years, disagreements over funding and fishing rights have caused delays in the negotiations. 

Dunn, who has been involved with the negotiations since around 2014, said it was an “eye-wateringly slow discussion about the blindingly obvious need for better mechanisms to protect, assess, and sustainably use the half of the planet beyond the control of any one country.”

The deal was reached following a non-stop two days meeting at UN headquarters in New York.

“The ship has reached the shore,” conference Chair Rena Lee of Singapore announced on Saturday.

Official adoption will occur later at another UN session after technical editing and translations of the agreed pact. Nations then must ratify the treaty for it to take effect. 

The Philippines said it “consistently underlined the principle of common heritage of humankind & importance of giving due regard to the rights & jurisdiction of adjacent coastal States & archipelagic States, which are heavily dependent on the sea.” 

It “will provide holistic & equitable management of human activities impacting ocean life beyond national boundaries to safeguard global ocean health & contribute to climate resilience, increased food security for millions of people,” Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said on Twitter.

Environmental group Greenpeace called it “a monumental win for ocean protection” that “provides a pathway to creating fully or highly protected areas across the world’s oceans.”

ENG_ENV_Biodiversity_03072023.2.jpg
Activists from Greenpeace display a banner in front of UN headquarters during the negotiations on a treaty to protect the high seas in New York on Feb. 27, 2023. Credit: AFP

Smaller countries lead the way

Henry Puna, the current secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, also applauded the agreement. 

Pacific Island nations, which occupy 20% of the world’s Economic Exclusive Zones, have long advocated for an international, legally binding instrument to preserve marine life in areas beyond national jurisdiction. 

Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic, said major countries, including the European Union, the United States and China “were key players in brokering the deal,” showing “willingness to compromise.” But so was a coalition of developing nations known as the Group of 77.

“Small Island States have shown leadership throughout the process, and the G77 group led the way in ensuring the treaty can be put into practice in a fair and equitable way,” Meller said.

The legally binding pact, called the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty, represents the first common framework agreement on ocean protection since the adoption of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which established the high seas as an area where all nations can conduct fishing, shipping, and research. 

Undiscovered biodiversity

The “high seas” lies outside of any country’s jurisdiction, beginning at the border of countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones that extend up to 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) from coastlines. It makes up more than 60% of the world’s oceans by surface area and is home to millions of species and ecosystems.

Currently, just 1.2% of these international waters, a vast reserve of undiscovered biodiversity, are protected.

Conservationists say sharing marine genetic resources derived from plants and animals in the ocean that could benefit society, including in pharmaceuticals, food, and industrial sectors, was another point of contention.

The treaty “articulates a new regime for access and benefits sharing of marine genetic resources, which have already been used to develop extremely lucrative pharmaceuticals by corporations and countries who can afford to access these deep and distant areas,” Dunn, who teaches at the University of Queensland, said in a statement.

Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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