Decades in the making, UN member states have finally reached an agreement on how to protect the vast amounts of ocean areas that exist outside national jurisdictions. The breakthrough will help to reinforce protective measures aimed at the preservation of marine life.

The agreement is a long time coming

An initiative that would see a significant amount of the world’s now looks to be moving forward after 20 years of talks. United Nations member states reached an agreement late on Saturday, putting a wrap on lengthy negotiations that had been occurring at the New York headquarters for several days. Rena Lee, president of the convened Intergovernmental Conference, took to floor to announce that an agreement had been reached.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore,” said Ms Lee to an extended standing ovation.

The agreement had been held up for years, due in part to a lack of consensus on funding and disagreements over the sharing of marine resources. Wealthier countries currently have the resources that enable deep sea exploration, whereas poorer nations were adamant that they should have equal access to any benefits that were discovered from oceanic research.

Previously, only 1.2% of these international waters were protected, meaning marine ecosystems that lived outside of these zones were at risk.

This latest development is the first international effort focusing on ocean protection since 1982’s UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed some 40 years ago. It ratified an area of the ocean known as the high seas, designated as international waters where countries were free to sail and conduct activities such as shipping and research. Previously, only 1.2% of these international waters were protected, meaning marine ecosystems that lived outside of these zones were at risk from overfishing, shipping traffic and unregulated pollution.

How the UN High Seas treaty will help

For a full breakdown of the High Seas Treaty, see our recent article: UN treaty could finally help save our seas.

In short, this agreement serves two purposes. Firstly, it directly establishes protected areas beyond countries fringe coastal jurisdictions and the previously designated international waters. It also puts limits on deep sea mining and sets restrictions on fishing and the routes of shipping vessels. Within the context of this agreement, some 30% of the world’s oceans will now be considered ‘protected’ and also will enable more money to be made available for marine conservation.

Secondly, the agreement has the added benefit of strengthening the existing 30×30 deal that was announced at COP15, which sought to protect one third of the Earth’s oceans by 2030. Without a legal framework to support it, the 30×30 pledge would not been enforceable – this treaty now provides a mechanism to ensure it is upheld.

The next step will be for countries to meet once again, where they will formally adopt the agreement. After which, it will be up to governments to begin the process of implementation, including the provision of resources and committees dedicated to executing this historic initiative.

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