Following nearly two decades of talks, member states of the United Nations (U.N.) finalized the High Seas Treaty, which aims to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, the U.N. said in a statement.
“International waters […] are the heritage of humanity,” Milko Schvartzman, head of the Conservation and Fisheries Program of Argentine non-profit environmental organization Círculo de Políticas Ambientales, told Diálogo on April 20.
The new treaty’s legal framework will make protected areas out of nearly two-thirds of the world’s oceans, allocate more money to marine conservation, and cover access to and use of marine genetic resources. It will also address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
“It is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing the health of the oceans, now and for generations to come,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on March 5 as he completed the final draft of the international treaty in New York.
International waters, known as high seas, begin where states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) end, 200 nautical miles from the coast, and covers more than 60 percent of the oceans and almost half of the planet, Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported.
Advances in science demonstrate the importance of protecting these oceans, which possess an often microscopic biodiversity that provides half of the oxygen we breathe and limits global warming by absorbing a significant part of the carbon dioxide generated by human activity, El Mundo added.
Among the key aspects of the treaty will be the creation of a Conference of the Parties, where countries will be held accountable for their actions related to the treaty. The treaty will also establish marine protected areas (MPAs), which will protect ocean waters against the loss of biodiversity and wildlife and include the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of marine genetic resources derived from species found in the high seas.
For Schvartzman, MPAs are “of great importance to South America.”
“In the case of the South Atlantic, it offers the possibility for the countries of the region to propose the creation of MPAs close to Argentina’s EEZ,” Schvartzman said. “That way, we can conserve this area, which is so important for its extraordinary marine wealth that today is ravaged by Chinese deep-water fishing fleets.”
Chinese fishing fleets have long been plundering international waters, targeting protected and endangered species alike, and committing great environmental damage as well as human rights abuses. The Chinese fleets have been described as the worst offenders, carrying out illegal fishing and violating maritime law.
Although the formal adoption of the treaty depends on ratification by each member country, including Russia, which will have to amend its laws to implement it, “it is likely that there will be opposition in the future when the treaty comes into force,” Schvartzman said.
For instance, Russia and China have blocked plans for Antarctic marine protections, being the only two members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — part of the Antarctic Treaty System — to refuse to support the proposed MPAs, Scientific American magazine reported in late November 2022.
According to EuroNews network, Moscow left the door open to possibly take up some issues of the High Seas Treaty, as some of its experts left New York before negotiations were final and could not review some points in detail.
“If there is first a conversation, a process that includes countries in the region with real willingness and diplomatic work, you can overcome these obstacles and oppositions to any conservation measures from these countries like Russia and China in almost every organization in the world,” Schvartzman said.
For the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) the scientific and technical body to be established will be essential to ensure that proposals and management plans for MPAs are robustly evaluated and that environmental impact assessment reports are received and made available to the global community.
“The life of the planet depends on the health of the ocean. It’s important to protect it because it absorbs large amounts of heat and carbon dioxide, which prevents the impacts and effects of climate change from being even more drastic than what is happening, and because it provides medicine and food for millions of people,” Schvartzman concluded.