It has not been long since the United Nations Security General outcried an ‘ocean emergency’ at Lisbon held UN Ocean Conference in June 2022 describing the threats debilitating and pushing healthy ocean ecosystems towards collapse.
It is embarrassing to note that nearly ninety percent of the current temperature rise in the world has concentrated in oceans as per NASA’s data and hence, many limnetic zone species may even be extinct before their discovery.
Recently, advocacy failed to reach consensus at a global forum wherein 168 countries on a United Nations treaty for protecting the ‘High Seas’ and ‘Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction’.
Although oceans have helped sustain the planet by being the greatest carbon sinks, yet ironically, there existed no dedicated treaty for preserving the health of our oceans and hence this agreement has been called the ‘Paris Agreement for the Ocean’.
An Ecologist explains: “The policy opportunity this represents is much rarer than once in a lifetime. How we should protect two-thirds of the world’s oceans, [and] it’s the first time in human history that this has ever been asked.”
What are the High Seas?
Water beyond 200 nautical miles or 370 kms of any state, are not included within its Exclusive Economic Zone (within 370 kms), territorial sea (22 kms) or its internal waters and hence, are called open waters or high seas.
As these are way beyond the sovereignty of any particular state, they are free to be accessed by any coastal or land-locked nation and consequently enjoy freedom of navigation, overflight, operate submarine cables or pipelines, fishing, scientific research and even construction of artificial island under exceptions.
High Seas are often termed as “the common heritage of all mankind”.
But this easy access, least accountability and the greed surfacing to extract a ‘not-so-owned’ resource has resulted in almost every country to operate freely involving large-scale drilling, bottom trawling to catch fishes and other animals, blast fishing, deep sea mining etc.
This has directly and indirectly impacted ocean ecosystems and every being that depends on it.
What is governing the open oceans then?
A widely signed international agreement in 1982 called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), often termed as the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea Treaty provides a legal framework governing all marine and maritime activities.
Although 133 countries have signed and ratified the UNCLOS, there are a few like Israel, Canada, USA, Turkey, Venezuela who have not signed it and others like China who have signed it but are constantly in disputes around its provisions.
The foundation of UNCLOS also created the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and allied conflict-resolution mechanisms for maritime disputes.
For the specific cause, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) works in consonance with the United Nations and other specialized agencies like UNESCO, FAO or ILO.
What is so different about the treaty?
A treaty was supposed to be negotiated for ocean health and its plethora of resources under the UNCLOS of 1982 itself governing the respective rights of countries beyond the dedicated waters. However, a UN resolution of 2017 with a similar motive set the year 2022 as deadline.
This new negotiation requested to be ‘binding’ by many States includes establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for marine projects, ecological and scientific expertise sharing etc.
The new deal will also provide for deciding the rights of companies undertaking prospection and exploration of biotic resources in these high seas.
A High Ambition Coalition, to be formed with more than 100 countries consisting of India, United Kingdom, United States, have derived a ‘30×30’ goal aimed at protecting 30 percent of the oceans by 2030.
This, as per the researchers, couldn’t have been possible a few years back.
But the current oceanographic tools basically allow researchers to understand complex scenarios.
For instance, locating and mapping the spawning and feeding grounds those need to be preferably reserved if not all can be conserved? What can happen if the two ecosystems and their beings collide?
An Oceanographer reports: “Protecting 30 percent of the area of the high seas doesn’t protect 30% of the most valuable conservation features… because of the way habitats and species are distributed”.
For 30 percent of ecosystem types to be represented, at least 40 percent of open waters need protection.
Why are the countries opposing this treaty offering a collective benefit?
Several discrete reasons have led to the temporary stalemate over this treaty.
The legalities of this treaty have been a bone of contention for many as many institutions like International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have demanded it to be only ‘binding’ to be more effective.
Even certain Caribbean countries displayed displeasure on the fact that affluent countries of the Global North anyhow did not actively take up the issue expect last few days to validate the treaty.
Their doubts have remained unaddressed and there is an urgent need for the division of Marine Genetic Resources (MGRs) equally among all countries and not just dedicated viable interests of a few.
Meanwhile there is another faction composed of climate-centered NGOs, climate scientists, environmental activists as well as delegates of certain countries who want strict preservation and designation of MPAs in high seas while allowing the overfished regions to recover.
Devolution and distribution of potential profits from future exploitation of MGRs ended in quite an inconsolable disagreement.
What are the available future options?
With respect to the treaty, the talks will supposedly be continued next year after the current stalemate unless there is some special provision made to meet on similar lines.
The world needs to find consensus for the fact that we need to urgently address warming and other perils infecting our waters and hence a fundamental shift is required to understand and manage it.
This perception is crucial for an adaptable climate change, consistent food security and above all, our well-being.
Especially the high seas making up nearly 60 percent of the ocean need to be fostered carefully and their protection through international agreements need to be increased from a mere one per cent currently.
It is therefore, not only needed for 3 billion people to survive but the dependence of planet’s survival is inherent in an absolute marine health.
A Researcher adds to the cause by asserting: “Given how fast species have declined in the last 20 years, it will be a catastrophe if we can’t capitalize on this momentum.”