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Nations reach deal to protect marine life on high seas

Updated: 2023-03-07 07:20

Fish swim near some bleached coral at Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park, Kenya, on June 11. [Photo/Agencies]

WASHINGTON — For the first time, United Nations members have agreed on a unified treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas, representing a turning point for vast stretches of the planet where conservation has previously been hampered by a confusing patchwork of laws.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force in 1994, before marine biodiversity was a well-established concept. The treaty agreement concluded after two weeks of talks in New York.

An updated framework to protect marine life in the regions outside national boundary waters, known as the high seas, had been in discussions for more than 20 years, but previous efforts to reach an agreement had repeatedly failed. The unified treaty, which applies to nearly half the planet's surface, was reached late on Saturday.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomes the finalization of the text of the United Nations Ocean Treaty, his spokesman said on Saturday.

"This breakthrough, which covers nearly two-thirds of the ocean, marks the culmination of nearly two decades of work and builds on the legacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," a statement said.

It is also vital for achieving ocean-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, said the statement.

Global commons

"We only really have two major global commons — the atmosphere and the oceans," said Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.While the oceans may draw less attention, "protecting this half of earth's surface is absolutely critical to the health of our planet".

Nichola Clark, an oceans expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts who observed the talks in New York, called the long-awaited treaty text "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the oceans — a major win for biodiversity".

The treaty will create a new body to manage the conservation of ocean life and establish marine-protected areas on the high seas. Clark said that's critical to achieve the UN Biodiversity Conference's recent pledge to protect 30 percent of the planet's waters, as well as its land, for conservation.

Treaty negotiations were initially anticipated to conclude on Friday, but stretched through the night into Saturday. The crafting of the treaty, which at times looked in jeopardy, represents "a historic and overwhelming success for international marine protection," said Steffi Lemke, Germany's environment minister.

The treaty also establishes ground rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for commercial activities in the oceans.


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