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UN Begins Negotiating First Conservation Treaty for the High Seas

International waters face threats from overfishing, mining, pollution and climate change and the new treaty may help preserve marine biodiversity

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The “high seas” might sound like slang lifted from a children's pirate movie, but the term actually has a specific definition. It means the international waters beyond the areas of ocean controlled by individual nations, called the Exclusive Economic Zone, extending 200 nautical miles from shore. While there are some treaties and laws governing the high seas, in many ways they are an ungoverned and lawless region, especially when it comes to conservation and endangered species management. According to Stephen Leahy at National Geographic, that’s one reason the United Nations voted on Sunday to kick off a two-year process of negotiating the first international treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts getting to this point has taken a long time in and of itself. The idea of giving some protection to species found outside national boundaries was first floated in 2004 during discussions of developments in ocean affairs and the law of the sea. Two years later, a working group was enlisted to study conservation in unregulated waters. Then, at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, participants committed to addressing the issue of marine biodiversity on an "urgent basis." Following that, in 2015, the working group passed a resolution to develop an internationally binding document on the law of the sea. Now, 140 member nations—more than the two-thirds needed for adoption—have co-sponsored moving ahead with treaty negotiations, which should conclude by 2020.

Conservationists are hoping the legally binding treaty will have some teeth. “This is great news. This vote could open the way to create a Paris Agreement for the ocean,” Maria Damanaki, formerly a European Union commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries who is now with the Nature Conservancy, said in an interview with Jonathan Watts at the Guardian. “This could be the most important step I have seen in my 30 years working on oceans.”

According to Watts, currently only 3.5 percent of the world’s oceans have any sort of legal protection. In the high seas, fish, marine mammals and other species face many threats including toxic dumping, massive plastic pollution, poaching, overfishing and illegal fishing techniques, and the emerging technology of seabed and deep sea mining. Now that the negotiations have the go-ahead, member states will address these and other issues at four meetings that will take place over the next two years.

“Some of the most under-surveyed of all ocean systems are in the high seas, and because they aren’t protected by the laws of any country, they are among the most vulnerable and potentially over-exploited on Earth,” Aulani Wilhelm of the Center for Oceans at Conservation International tells Watts. “The science is clear on the role oceans play in ensuring the current and future livability of the planet. If we want our oceans to continue to provide food, absorb carbon, and regulate climate for the planet, protecting the biodiversity of the high seas is critical.”

Leahy reports that one of the big issues the negotiators will tackle is fishing. One third of fish stocks in the ocean are reported to be over-exploited, and the number of big fish in the sea has plummeted by 90 percent in recent decades. Most of those fish are caught in coastal waters within the boundaries of nations. But about ten percent come from the high seas, where massive trawlers dredge the sea floor, Ussif Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, tells Leahy. Those boats mainly come from ten nations who heavily subsidize costly factory ships otherwise known as fish processing vessels that scower the high seas for fish. Sumaila says his research indicates that closing the high seas off to fishing would create a fish bank, since many coastal species spend part of their lives on the high seas, and could produce an up to 18 percent bump in coastal fish stocks.

Karen Sack of Ocean Unite tells Leahy she is hopeful that the treaty will lead to a new network of marine reserves as well, which could help the ocean become more resilient in the face of climate change. “We need a legal entity to create these reserves, and that will be this new ocean treaty,” she says.

The big problem with the treaty faces, however, is monitoring and enforcing any new regulations on the high seas. “Enforcement will be a key issue facing nations over the next two years,” Liz Karan of the Pew Charitable Trust tells Watts. “We’re not expecting a UN navy, but we hope that big nations will use their navies plus advances in satellite technology and tighter monitoring requirements for all vessels to have tracking devices.”

The major stumbling block, however, is politics. Watts reports that Japan, Iceland and South Korea, for example, some of the world's major fishing nations, want to exclude discussions of fishing from the treaty.

Whatever negotiators agree on could prove critical for future preservation efforts for marine life. According to UN experts, the world's oceans could run out of commercially harvestable fish by 2050 if humans don't find new ways to regulate their voracious appetite for sashimi and fish sticks.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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