Julian Jackson –As threats to the ocean rise, negotiators are eager to protect vital biodiversity.
Julian Jackson leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts in Europe to protect ocean life on the high seas. This work complements the Ocean Unite 30 x 30 campaign – a call to action to safeguard 30 per cent of the world’s ocean by 2030.
My favourite fact about the ocean is that it provides 99 per cent of the habitable space for life on Earth. That’s remarkable but also alarming, because as threats to the marine environment continue to mount – greater needs for protection become increasingly urgent.
It is especially worrying that the high seas – the two-thirds of the ocean beyond the reach of most national laws – have precious little protection. At present, only one per cent of the high seas are safeguarded (under a patchwork of measures administered by various international bodies). However, that could be about to change. The United Nations is negotiating a treaty that would, among other things, create a mechanism to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the high seas and require environmental impact assessments for many human activities that happen beyond national jurisdiction. The treaty would also address marine genetic resources, a potential source of inspiration for biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors; and capacity building and the transfer of marine technology, critical in particular for developing countries to be able to both conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity.
Global seaborne trade is expected to treble by 2050, which would cause a rise in marine pollution – this will include noise pollution, which is gaining more recognition as a threat to ocean life. I recently learnt that a single blast from a seismic airgun (used for geological surveys) can kill delicate krill larvae over a kilometre away. All of these factors must be addressed as we work together to protect the high seas.
A new high seas treaty would build upon the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which addresses many activities on the ocean, including the right to free passage and marine scientific research. These rights must be balanced with responsibilities and the new treaty must recognise ocean biodiversity, its value to humanity, and the ever-increasing pressures on marine life.
A UN negotiation session took place in August this year and government delegates worked on a draft treaty. They hashed out language, often working late and in workshops over the weekend. This helped to slim down a few of the differing proposals from delegates, but it also left key differences unresolved, particularly how to share the benefits from marine genetic resources.
The fortnight of treaty negotiations was bookended by two well-known conservation campaigners. On the first day, actor Javier Bardem made a speech to the delegates during a Greenpeace event. On the last day of the conference 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joined the Climate Strike outside the UN.