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High Seas Treaty: World’s oceans to be protected, but OCEANA Belize says governance mechanism needs work

Posted: Wednesday, March 8, 2023. 10:25 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Nations have reached a historic agreement to protect the world’s oceans following 10 years of negotiations, the BBC reports.

The High Seas Treaty, agreed Saturday evening at United Nations headquarters in New York City, aims to help place 30 percent of the seas into protected areas by 2030, to safeguard and recuperate marine nature.

The last international agreement on ocean protection was signed 40 years ago in 1982 – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which first established the high seas as waters where all countries have a right to fish, ship and do research, but barely one percent is formally protected.

That agreement established an area called the high seas – international waters where all countries have a right to fish, ship and do research – but only 1.2 percent of these waters are protected.

Marine life living outside these protected areas has been at risk from climate change, overfishing and shipping traffic. In the latest assessment of global marine species, nearly 10 percent were found to be at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

These areas will put limits on how much fishing can take place, the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities like deep sea mining – when minerals are taken from a sea bed 200 meters or more below the surface.

Environmental groups have been concerned that mining processes could disturb animal breeding grounds, create noise pollution and be toxic to marine life.

The International Seabed Authority that oversees licensing told the BBC that “any future activity in the deep seabed will be subject to strict environmental regulations and oversight to ensure that they are carried out sustainably and responsibly”.

Senator for non-governmental organizations Janelle Chanona, also Vice-President of Oceana Belize, in a statement, called the HST “a step forward,” but said it fell “short of providing a framework for adequately rapid progress on protecting high seas biodiversity. It does a better job of] requiring modern standards for environmental impact assessments for high seas activities, prioritization of equitable benefit sharing arising from marine genetic resources, and the ability to adopt emergency conservation measures.”

Notably, according to Oceana, the HST “explicitly states that the new treaty does not change existing agreements covering activities on the high seas.” Agreements on limiting fishing, seabed mining, and shipping would therefore be subject to the decision-making of existing international governing bodies, which can be influenced and “badly weakened” by a single non-complying country.

Oceana further notes that “The treaty will become effective upon approval by 60 countries. This will likely take several years (as a reference, [UNCLOS] required 12 years for ratification; the Paris Agreement on Climate took only one year). Ratification is not assured, even by the countries that championed the agreement (for example, the U.S. has still not ratified UNCLOS, although it abides by its principles). Non-ratifying countries would not be bound by the treaty, raising additional questions about the integrity of high seas MPAs created under this new treaty.” It adds that questions of implementation and compliance to be negotiated by ratifying parties in a conference of parties cannot begin until countries ratify the treaty locally.

In Belize, such ratification occurs in the Senate. It is not clear if we were represented at the negotiations for the HST.

 

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