World leaders are under pressure to wrap up years of talks on a deal to protect the open oceans that help sustain life on Earth, cover nearly half the planet and are currently not subject to any national laws.
As plans to protect and restore ecosystems around the world are integrated, conservationists hope an oceans summit in France this week will give new impetus to efforts to finalize a legally binding treaty of United Nations on the high seas.
The issue could not be more urgent, they say.
The oceans produce half of the oxygen we breathe, regulate the weather, and provide humanity’s greatest source of protein.
But they are being pushed to the brink by human activities.
Carbon dioxide emissions and global warming are driving devastating heat waves and acidification, while humans have fished some marine species from the brink of extinction and used the world’s waters as a dumping ground.
“The oceans as a whole are warming, salinity levels are rising. There is less oxygen for marine life,” said Liz Karan, expert at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
While a new treaty can’t fix all of these issues, she said the deal is “more important than ever”.
“What it can do is make sure there are refuges in place, large protected areas in place, that can give marine species a chance to breathe, an opportunity to survive and thrive. adapt to climate change.
– ‘The greatest opportunity’ –
Today, a patchwork of agreements and regulatory bodies govern shipping, fishing and mining, while the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated in the 1970s, sets rules on the extent of a nation’s zone of influence beyond its shores.
But despite two decades of consultations and negotiations, there is still no treaty protecting international waters – those marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, comprising about two-thirds of the world’s oceans.
A new round of UN talks in March will aim to seal the deal.
“We sometimes say it’s the most important environmental treaty that most people haven’t even heard of,” said Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance, which brings together around 40 NGOs and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). .
The issue is finally getting more attention, she said, adding that meetings like the One Ocean Summit being held this week in the port city of Brest, in northwestern France, can help strengthen pressure on governments to reach an agreement.
“This is truly the greatest opportunity in a generation to conserve ocean life and diversity globally,” she told AFP.
– Shared responsibility –
Several questions divide nations over how best to manage the world’s vast expanse of open ocean.
Among the main issues to be debated are the creation of marine protected areas and the possibility of reducing large-scale commercial fishing.
Another controversial issue is who gets a share of the benefits from the exploitation of so-called “marine genetic resources”.
Poorer countries fear being sidelined as wealthier nations scour the seas for the next miracle ingredient for the pharmaceutical, chemical or cosmetics industries, and lock up the spoils in trademarks and patents .
“They want any financial gain from the resources of the high seas to fall under a benefit-sharing regime,” said André Abreu, of the Tara Ocean Foundation.
An indication of the continuing wrangling is the number of sections of the latest 2019 draft treaty still tentatively bracketed.
These include several overarching statements for the high seas, such as reference to the “polluter pays principle” and the “common heritage of mankind”, a designation that currently only applies to the world’s seabed.
Other issues on the table include how to set up environmental impact assessments, law enforcement and technology transfer.
The concept of marine protected areas has garnered significant international support, with more than 75 countries backing a plan to create conservation areas covering 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030.
But the High Seas Alliance said a key question would be whether the treaty allowed each state to be able to veto the creation of a marine protected area.
“We are at a stage where we really need leadership at the highest level,” Kalas said.
“It is urgent, every day and every year it is delayed, there is a loss of biodiversity. We must conclude these negotiations.”