Deadline looms to seal treaty to protect the high seas

Garbage at the shore of Cavero Beach of Peru, after an oil spill that occurred in January, on July 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - United Nations delegates face an end-of-week deadline to seal a treaty that aims to conserve and protect nature on the high seas, a vast area of the planet that remains largely unregulated and is suffering from overfishing, pollution and the effects of climate change.

Only about 1 per cent of the high seas is regulated, and a treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions is regarded as urgent. Conservation groups say this vast area needs to be much better protected and regulated, especially with growing interest in potentially damaging activities such as seabed mining.

The high seas cover areas of the world's oceans that extend beyond 200 nautical miles (370km) from any shore and beyond the jurisdiction of any country.

The fifth and final round of discussions on the matter started on Aug 15 and is meant to wrap up on Friday (Aug 26) at the UN headquarters in New York. Mrs Rena Lee, Singapore's Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues, is presiding over the negotiations.

Observers say progress has been made but major sticking points remain on key issues and that the talks might run deep into the night on Friday.

"We're seeing progress and I have to say, I'm also getting the sense that people want to get this done," said Mr Julian Jackson of The Pew Charitable Trusts, who has been closely monitoring the talks.

"It's as encouraging as it is worrying," he added, saying there was a risk that some of the key conservation elements of the treaty might be jettisoned in the final hours.

Negotiations have been ongoing for years. If agreed upon, the treaty would be an international, legally binding instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of Sea and add much needed additional regulation of the high seas as nations eye this vast area for resources.

Oceans act as a brake on climate change but are also being affected by global warming. In recent decades, oceans have absorbed about 90 per cent of the warming caused by the rapid increase in greenhouse gases. They also soak up about a quarter of the carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.

But warming waters, rising acidity, and falling oxygen levels threaten the future of the oceans. Fisheries and other natural wonders, such as coral reefs, support hundreds of millions of people, but are increasingly under threat by climate impacts and overfishing.

Agreement on the treaty could go some way to achieving a separate, but related, deal in December to protect at least 30 per cent of the world's land, freshwater and marine ecosystems by 2030, under the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity.

Mr Jackson, a senior officer with Pew's protecting ocean life on the high seas campaign, said disagreements remain when it comes to issues such as how to create and manage marine protected areas (MPAs), which conservation groups say are vital to help fisheries recover. Greenpeace, for instance, says the MPA definition must allow for fully protected ocean sanctuaries.

Differences also remain on environmental impact assessments (EIAs) - for example, on seabed mining or other activities that risk environmental damage. States that are party to the treaty are expected to carry out EIAs.

"But who's going to decide on whether or not that activity goes ahead? Who's going to review and assess that the environmental impact assessment is actually meeting the standards for what you'd expect?" asked Mr Jackson. These issues remain unresolved.

Another contentious area is the sharing of marine genetic resources, such as biological material from plants, algae, animals and microbial or other organisms that could be used for products such as drugs or cosmetics. Money from such commercial benefits could be a vital resource for poorer nations and also help them implement the treaty, Mr Jackson said.

Ultimately, though, agreement on a treaty would be a boost to the multilateral process, he added, pointing to the packed agenda ahead with the UN General Assembly in September, the COP27 climate conference in November, and the COP15 biodiversity meeting in December.

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