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UN Ocean Treaty: ‘A Step Forward, but Achieving Action will be the Real Test’

Many countries fail to protect, or even actively exploit, their coastal marine reserves – how will new initiatives be different? 

A sperm whale swimming in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius. Photo: Wildestanimal/Alamy

UN Ocean TreatyA Step Forward, but Achieving Action will be the Real Test

Many countries fail to protect, or even actively exploit, their coastal marine reserves – how will new initiatives be different? 

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The agreement of the Oceans Treaty at a UN meeting in New York is undoubtedly historic. 

In an age when multilateralism seems increasingly difficult, the stop-start negotiations which were interrupted by COVID and have a legacy dating back nearly two decades, have achieved a result many had hardly dared to believe was possible. 

The treaty, which aims to protect 30% of high seas areas by 2030, has been heralded by everyone from government officials to UN negotiators and campaigners. 

Laura Meller, of Greenpeace Nordic, observed that “this is a historic day for conservation and a sign that, in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics”. It is right to acknowledge the gravity of the moment, but now the real challenges will begin.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has welcomed the treaty and also made a firm call for swift and effective implementation. The hour in which the treaty – which now needs to be ratified by member states – has been agreed could hardly be more urgent. Our oceans face a multitude of threats, primarily from over-fishing, but 66% of the ocean’s surface has also been affected by processes such as agricultural run-off and plastic pollution. 

Human activity continues to change ocean chemistry at an alarming rate. A study published in Nature Climate Change last year argued that, without significant reductions to CO2 emissions, 90% of ocean life could be at risk of extinction by 2,100.

The oceans – covering 71% of the Earth’s surface – are vital for a liveable planet for all creatures, humans included. But, as IUCN’s Minna Epps said in response to the successful conclusion of the treaty negotiations, the oceans have often seemed “out of sight, out of mind”. 

Illegal fishing is rife and plastic pollution blights vast areas. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is a vortex or ocean ‘gyre’ created by currents in waters between Hawaii and California. Filled with waste plastic, it spans an astonishing 7.7 million square kilometres.

There are just seven years to achieve the target of protecting 30% of the high seas by 2030. This is in the context of previous international attempts to protect the oceans being faltering and often ineffective. 

Many countries fail to protect or even actively exploit their own coastal marine reserve areas. So how will new initiatives brought in as part of this agreement be different? 

‘Courts of Conscience andthe Climate Emergency’

Tom Hardy

Reversing Decades of Failure

In a letter to the Guardian following the agreement of the treaty, Professor Guy Standing, author of The Blue Commons – Rescuing the Economy of the Sea, highlighted some of the past challenges in this area. In particular, he drew attention to the formation of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). This was established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNclos), which was agreed in 1982, but the ISA didn’t come into being until 1994. It was also tasked with establishing a mining code for the seas, something that 28 years later, still hasn’t been achieved. 

One of the most contentious elements of the negotiations related to the sharing of knowledge concerning the economic and social benefit of the oceans between rich and poorer countries. The treaty seeks to share the benefit of “global biological resources” within the oceans, while protecting them, but similar aims were also key to the 1982 treaty. 

With so little time to make a significant difference, it is key that as the IUCN, Greenpeace and others have argued, the ratification of the treaty is fast-tracked. There also need to be measures put in place to ensure that the aim to protect 30% of the high seas by 2030 is not watered-down. 

Global attempts to protect our oceans will not only hinge on the swift practical implementation of the treaty but also on the success of other initiatives such as the Global Plastics Treaty. Negotiations to agree this started in late 2022 and are due to be resumed in May.  

Other emerging threats to the ocean, such as seabed mining and the harvesting of plankton to make commercial fishmeal, need to be addressed for global conservation efforts to be effective. Scientific studies have shown that no-take marine reserves are the most effective way to protect our oceans.

The treaty is a historic step towards establishing protection for the often overlooked and exploited high seas. But, as it continues to be celebrated, the mood should be tempered by an acknowledgement of the multiple challenges ahead. It will undoubtedly be necessary for interested parties to keep up the pressure for swift and effective action.

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