Earth is a blue planet, and this weekend yielded good news for our world’s plentiful marine environments. Leaders from more than 190 nations around the world came together on Saturday night to establish a long-awaited, global agreement to protect the world’s oceans.
The final text came from a meeting of United Nations delegates at the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), after 38 hours of discussions at the U.N. headquarters in New York City.
If 38 hours of talks sounds long, know that it’s nothing compared to the total time such a development has been in the works. This new agreement is the culmination of discussions that began all the way back in 2004, the U.N. said in a Sunday news statement.
“This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” said U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, in a Saturday statement. “It is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” he added.
What does the High Seas Agreement Do?
The landmark deal, widely being referred to as the “High Seas Agreement,” establishes a protocol for determining new protected areas in international waters. This portion of the oceans, generally encompassing any area 200 nautical miles from the shore, accounts for about two-thirds of all marine environments. As something of a maritime wild west, these waters have gone largely unmanaged in any meaningful way, up until now.
The new treaty establishes an official mechanism for creating more marine protected areas in international waters (or “high seas”) for the first time. Currently, just 1.2% of Earth’s high seas are protected, according to conservation nonprofit super group the High Seas Alliance.
The agreement, which still needs to be ratified by the U.N. to go into effect, establishes a legal framework for upping that protected percentage to a full 30% of the world’s marine ecosystems. That 30% benchmark was initially outlined in a separate United Nations biodiversity pledge in December 2022, but this agreement makes meeting that goal much more plausible.
In addition, the agreement funnels more money into ocean conservation and outlines terms for use and sharing of scientific information and technology. It also dictates new requirements surrounding transparency and international marine environmental monitoring.
How are scientists and conservationists reacting?
Overwhelmingly, marine researchers and ocean conservation experts expressed excitement in seeing the High Seas Agreement come together.
“This new treaty is a landmark step in the protection of marine life and biodiversity in international waters spanning more than half of Earth’s surface,” Rick Murray, deputy director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said in an emailed statement to Earther. The waters covered by the agreement “provide habitats for countless species and support the lives and livelihoods of billions of people worldwide. The treaty offers hope that real, durable protections against climate change and human activity are within reach for the ocean,” added Murray, a marine and environmental scientist.
Christopher Reddy, another Woods Hole marine scientist, told Earther in a phone call that he was happy to see the agreement coalesce. “It’s great news,” he said. “I fully support it. I think it’s a great thing.”
Though the 30% protection goal might seem like a lot, Reddy noted that “it’s not an excessive burden.” Managing to achieve that level of marine protection worldwide will be tough, and “there are significant challenges” ahead, the marine chemist noted. “There’s a lot of work to be done.” However, Reddy applauded the agreement’s research-based protocol for selecting new areas to protect and was overall optimistic about the multi-national teamwork.
“This is not somebody sitting around with a map and just circling areas to protect. [With this agreement] we are choosing areas that need to be protected from human activity using science.” Sheltering the most vulnerable areas from things like marine pollution and oil spills, which Reddy studies, means that sensitive marine ecosystems will have more of a chance to survive and thrive.
What’s next for the U.N.’s ocean conservation efforts?
Just because countries were able to decide on text doesn’t mean it’s been implemented yet. A long road of policy and international bureaucracy now awaits.
A final version of the High Seas Agreement still needs to be ratified by U.N. member states to officially take effect. If past U.N. treaties are any indication, this could take years.
From there, participating nations can start proposing new marine protected areas, which will need to be individually approved.
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