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Nations agree on ‘world-changing’ deal to protect ocean life

March 5, 2023 Updated Sun., March 5, 2023 at 8:28 p.m.

A humpback whale swims in Disko Bay on August 4, 2019, in Ilulissat, Greenland.  (Sean Gallup)
A humpback whale swims in Disko Bay on August 4, 2019, in Ilulissat, Greenland. (Sean Gallup)
By Leo Sands and Dino Grandoni Washington Post

More than 190 countries have reached a landmark deal for protecting the biodiversity of the world’s oceans, agreeing for the first time on a common framework for establishing new protected areas in international waters.

The treaty, whose text was finalized Saturday night by diplomats in New York after years of stalled talks, will help safeguard the high seas, which lie beyond national boundaries and make up two-thirds of Earth’s ocean surface. Member states have been trying to agree on the long-awaited treaty for almost 20 years.

Environmental advocacy groups heralded the finalized text – which still needs to be ratified by the United Nations – as a new chapter for Earth’s high seas. Just 1.2% of them are currently environmentally protected, exposing the vast array of marine species that teem beneath the surface – from tiny plankton to giant whales – to threats like pollution and overfishing.

“Two-thirds of the ocean has just been exposed to the will and want of all,” said Rebecca Hubbard, the director of the High Seas Alliance consortium of nongovernmental organizations that participated in the negotiations, in a telephone interview Sunday. “We have never been able to protect and manage marine life in the ocean beyond countries’ jurisdictions,” she said. “This is absolutely world-changing.”

The treaty will not automatically establish any new marine protection areas, but it creates a mechanism for nations to begin designating them in international waters. That ability is crucial for enforcing the pledges agreed on at last year’s U.N. biodiversity summit, COP15, where delegates pledged to protect nearly a third of Earth’s land and oceans by 2030 as a refuge for the planet’s remaining wild plants and animals.

The high seas treaty makes it easier for that goal to be reached, as it allows vast swaths of vulnerable marine ecosystems in international waters to be subject to protections from overfishing, shipping and mining for the first time.

It will also offer protections for millions of organisms inhabiting the high seas – Earth’s largest physical habitat – and contribute to the fight against climate change, Hubbard said.

“This is a landmark moment for the ocean – one that will usher in a new era of collective responsibility for our planet’s most significant global commons,” said Pepe Clarke, global ocean practice leader for the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement Saturday. “Last year, nations committed to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030. Today’s achievement is a significant step toward delivering on that promise.”

“Today the world came together to protect the ocean for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. We leave here with the ability to create protected areas in the high seas,” tweeted Monica Medina, the U.S. assistant secretary for oceans at the State Department.

The treaty’s final text had not yet been published in full, but according to the State Department, it also establishes frameworks for nations to coordinate on environmental impact assessments and to share marine genetic resources – scientific knowledge about deep-sea organisms found in remote waters that could be of value to humankind.

Despite U.N. members agreeing to a final version of the text, it is still expected to take years for the treaty to be formally adopted by member states and come into force. Once it takes legal effect, nations can then begin proposing the establishment of new marine protection areas.

The agreement is the first of its kind to protect oceans since 1982, when the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted, establishing a single set of rules that governed the world’s oceans and their resources.

“This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, in a statement after the agreement. “It is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.”

Nature is in the midst of an extinction crisis. A million plants and animals around the world may disappear for good, U.N. scientists say. In the oceans, many sea stars and sturgeon are already on the decline.

Sharks are threatened by overfishing, and coral reefs are succumbing to the acidification of the oceans because of climate change. The decline of marine ecosystems could hurt billions of coastal residents who depend on seafood for protein.

Research published in the journal Nature in 2021 suggested that efforts to protect more of the world’s waters would not only support marine diversity, but would also boost the amount of carbon absorbed by the ocean, contributing to the fight against climate change.

“The ocean is also – physically – our biggest ally in the fight against climate change,” said Hubbard of the High Seas Alliance. “Without an ocean full of marine life, it cannot continue to sequester and store carbon.”

“We have a degraded ocean on our hands, but the ocean has a phenomenal capacity to restore itself.”

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Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.

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