Analysis | High hopes for the high seas
The first global treaty to protect the ecosystems of international waters is a very important step.
The first treaty to protect ecosystems in international waters is a very important step.
It's an imperfect, but historic treaty.
It's been 20 years since the countries of the planet negotiated to agree on the protection of biodiversity in the high seas. After years of scientific debates, legal controversies and political wrangling, States have finally reached an agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
The signed treaty could be a giant step forward for the protection of the oceans.
For the first time in history, countries have agreed to protect the high sea, which was in a way the missing link to be able to classify 30% of the ocean under a protected status by 2030, according to the international agreement for biodiversity concluded in December 2022, in Montreal.
< p class="e-p">It's major.
The ship reached shore, said the chair of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, Rena Lee, when the deal was finally struck on March 4.
It will have taken some time. But the issue, it must be said, is not simple.
The high seas are vast. That's nearly half the surface of the planet, an area that makes up nearly two-thirds of the world's oceans. It begins where national borders end, beyond the States' exclusive economic zones, 200 nautical miles from the coast (370 kilometers).
It is therefore not belongs to any state. In fact, the high seas belong to everyone… and to no one at the same time.
Over time, we realized that this great legal vacuum posed a problem.
The countries may have agreed last December in Montreal, at the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity (COP15), to protect 30% of terrestrial and marine areas by 2030, all that ultimately concerned only the areas managed by the States themselves.
All the rest, which still means about 60% of the surface of the oceans, remained an area essentially free from protection rules.
However, in the open sea, there are many problems.
Chinese flag boat fishing for squid on the high seas off the Galapagos Islands.
According to experts from the UN Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO), barely two-thirds of fish and shellfish populations are currently fished sustainably, i.e. so that the species can recover. New fishing technologies make it possible to scrape the bottom of the oceans at very great depths. On the high seas, therefore, the situation is deteriorating.
Then there is the very serious problem of pollution. That produced by shipping and oil spills, of course. But that, too, generated by plastic. In a study published on March 8 in the scientific journal Plos One (in English),American researchers find that plastic pollution of the oceans has exploded since 2005, an effect of the exponential increase in plastic production in the previous two or three decades. They estimate that today between 1.1 and 4.9 million tonnes of plastic are widespread in the oceans. They estimate that if nothing is done, the rate of penetration of plastic particles into the oceans will more than double by 2040.
Finally there is the problem of exploitation of mineral resources and genetic resources. Deep sea ocean floors contain metals, deep-sea sponges, algae, corals, bacteria, and fuels that many companies and states ogle.
Hence the need, it will be understood, that this vast area be managed by an international treaty.
Coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of the surface of the ocean, but are home to about a third of its biodiversity.
The flagship measure of this international agreement is certainly the one that will allow the international community to create marine protected areas on the high seas, in order to limit and prevent human activities in these areas. This is an important step forward that will allow better management of fishing, trade routes and the exploration of mineral resources. Proposals for protected areas will be evaluated by a scientific and technical council.
But the treaty is not just about protecting marine areas.
It also includes very important provisions that go beyond simple protection.
On the one hand, the agreement also aims to ensure that newly discovered ocean resources, and the resulting benefits will be equitably shared between developed and developing countries.
The agreement thus resolves the long-unresolved dispute over gains from marine genetic resources, which mostly go into the pockets of the rich countries, which are the only ones with the ability to exploit them.
Genetic material from plants, animals, microbes or other origins may be of interest to sectors such as medicine, pharmacy, cosmetics, chemistry. Significant sums could thus be generated by those who exploit them. But under the deal, the benefits will be shared: developed countries have agreed to make advance payments that will go into a common fund.
These resources must still exist! Several biologists believe that there are few exploitable genetic resources at these depths. We'll see.
But all of this is still very good news.
On the other hand, the agreement allows for another major, albeit limited, advancement: the ability for countries to subject high seas activities to environmental impact assessments. This provision is particularly important for activities whose effects are poorly understood, such as deep sea mining.
However, this measure has limits: according to the agreement, the studies remain the sole responsibility of each country, individually. If a Canadian-flagged vessel is involved in an activity, Canada will conduct the assessment. States will have to be transparent in this regard… Because the agreement leaves it to the countries that carry out the impact study to decide whether the activity can be carried out or not. The role of the other countries will be limited to being able to notify their disagreement and to consult the other Member States.
We can already see the problems to come.
This is one of the great weaknesses of the agreement. But it is also the result of a compromise on an issue that has been blocking negotiations for years.
American actress and activist Jane Fonda, along with French Secretary of State for the Sea Hervé Berville, supports the creation of a new treaty on high Wed.
If a treaty is finally born now, after all these years of negotiations, it is perhaps because we know better what there is to protect. New observation and research technologies allow us to better understand the rich biodiversity of the open sea.
We protect better what we know.
But despite the signing of this treaty, there is still a long way to go.
For the time being, that only remains an agreement in principle. For it to enter into force, and for funds to be exchanged, the text must first be ratified by sixty countries. It shouldn't be a problem, but it won't happen overnight.
The biggest challenge will certainly remain implementing the agreement. The high seas, it was said, are half the planet! How will we be able to monitor everything that happens at sea? Certainly, technologies such as satellites, radars and drones will allow better surveillance.
But the agreement will have to impose its requirements in terms of transparency. When it comes to international agreement, it is never simple.
It will also be necessary to develop a structure for distributing funds, a consultation process, clear rules of environmental assessment and an initial list of areas to be protected.
As hopeful as it is, the journey that remains to be made before truly reaching shore is not over. .
And we can think there will be some swell.