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‘Las conversaciones más importantes de las que nadie ha oído hablar’: por qué es importante el tratado de alta mar.
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Almost two-thirds of the world’s ocean lies outside national boundaries. These are the “high seas”, where loosely enforced rules have meant a vast portion of the planet, hundreds of miles from land, is often lawless.
Because of this, the high seas are more easily exploited than coastal seas. Currently, all countries can navigate, fish (or overfish) and do scientific research on the high seas as much as they want. Only 1.2% of it is protected, and the increasing reach of fishing and shipping vessels, the threat of deep-sea mining, and “bioprospecting” of marine species, mean they are being threatened like never before.
Yet, not only does a healthy ocean provide half of the oxygen we breathe, it represents 95% of the planet’s biosphere, soaks up carbon dioxide and is Earth’s largest carbon sink.
Members from 193 member states began talks at the UN headquarters in New York to conclude negotiations for what scientists have described as a “once in a lifetime” chance to protect the high seas.
The talks are critical to enforcing the 30×30 pledge from the UN Biodiversity Conference in December, 2022: a promise to protect 30% of the ocean (as well as 30% of the land) by 2030. Without a high seas treaty to protect marine areas, scientists and environmentalists agree the 30×30 pledge will fail.
“Every second breath being taken comes from the ocean generating oxygen,” said Liz Karan, who leads high seas protection work at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “A healthy ocean is critical for having life on the planet – including human life.”
Karan and others are hopeful that countries will finalize a legal framework to establish a network of high sea marine protected areas (MPAs) “for adaptation and resilience” for species in a changing climate.
The conference president, Rena Lee, said that there were two sticking points: how to establish and maintain MPAs in areas that aren’t governed by any individual country, and how to secure fair access to marine resources for all.
“There is tension between countries that have those resources and countries that don’t,” said Karan. “There are some countries – like big, distant-water fishing countries [nations that send fleets of fishing vessels across the globe] – that are protecting their interests.”
“What the science shows”, Karan added, “is that we need to put conservation first if we are going to protect fisheries resources for future generations.” That means immediately confronting overfishing and illegal fishing, which together are the biggest driver of environmental decline in the ocean.
“Industrial fishers try to exploit and profit from ocean resources that, by law, belong to everyone,” said Jessica Battle, a senior global oceans expert for WWF who is leading the NGO’s team at the negotiations.
Greenpeace warned the treaty was in danger as countries in the global north, including China, refused to compromise. The global north must seek compromises instead of arguing over minor points, it said.
Among the high seas biodiversity hotspots that would benefit from being sanctuaries is the Costa Rica Dome – nutrient-rich waters that attract yellowfin tuna, migratory dolphins, endangered blue whales, and leatherback sea turtles. There is also the Emperor Seamount chain west of the Hawaiian islands towards Russia.
“There are corridors of the sea where whales aggregate every year,” said Doug McCauley, an associate professor of ocean science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who contributed to a paper highlighting 10 such proposed sanctuaries.
“There’s a real opportunity to make history with this treaty,” he said. “It is arguably one of the most important international negotiations that no one has ever heard of.”