The high seas are in dire need of protection

Almost half of the Earth’s surface is owned by no one. They are areas outside of any national state. Practices such as illegal and destructive fishing, discharge from ships or dumping can cause significant damage. The pharmaceutical company can simply collect genetic material from plants or animals and use it in vaccines that are then sold at a high price.

More than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is made up of water, two-thirds of which lie outside the exclusive economic zones (up to 200 nautical miles, more than 370 kilometers off the coast) of countries. Nobody is responsible, and according to Marco Lambertini, International Director of the World Wildlife Fund, this is a tragedy high seas – In Dutch it is usually translated as “high seas”.

“Because the oceans belong to no one, they have been treated recklessly, with no one held accountable,” Lambertini said last week in New York, where the United Nations is negotiating a treaty to better protect the oceans. “We need joint management of our oceans to ensure that no one’s water turns into everyone’s water – and everyone’s responsibility.”

It’s not far yet. Better ocean protection has been discussed for more than twenty years and the New York conference is the fifth round of negotiations in a short time. While progress has been made, the talks are challenging. It is not certain that the final text of the treaty supplementing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, will be in effect on Friday, when the conference officially ends.

A group of beluga whales or belugas in the Arctic Ocean near Spitsbergen.
Sebnim Coskun’s photo / Anadolu Agency

healthy planet

However, the need for an ecological agreement and ocean biodiversity is recognized by all parties. “There can be no healthy planet without healthy oceans,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in Lisbon in June. “Unfortunately, we have taken the ocean for granted and are now facing what I would call an ‘ocean emergency’. We have to turn the tide.”

The oceans play an essential role in Earth’s biodiversity. They are at the beginning of many food chains. The oceans are also the most important insulator against the planet’s warming faster, because they contain the most carbon dioxide2 Produced by mankind and because it absorbs a lot of high temperature.

Guterres says the global community’s inability to care about the oceans is losing its resilience. At least 120 marine animals have been added to the endangered species list since negotiations began 20 years ago. The oceans are being fished at a rapid pace and plastic bags have been found up to the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth. 80 percent of all wastewater is discharged into the sea without treatment. Increased carbon dioxide concentration2 In the oceans it leads to acidification of the waters with severe consequences for corals and crustaceans, and heat waves in seawater can cause serious damage.

“This shows that it is time for action,” Alex Odd Elfrink, professor of the international law of the sea at Utrecht University, says in a video call. “But we’ve known that for a long time. It’s about the sum of all these forms of influence.” Odd Elfrink says that it is the European Union and the Group of 77, a group of about a hundred developing countries and China, who want to speed up the treaty. “Europe may not be a major factor of geopolitical power, but when it comes to this type of organization, it is an important international player. There is a good dialogue with the G-77.”

knowledge transfer

According to Oude Elferink, that doesn’t mean an agreement is within reach. The EU really wants effective protection and therefore clear agreements on how to do it. Developing countries in particular want to influence the extraction and use of genetic material from deep-sea organisms. They expect this material to be used in higher-money applications. And because these genetic resources belong to everyone, that money should not only go to rich countries.”

Odd Elfrink predicts that rich countries will never sign a treaty in which their companies are forced to transfer knowledge. This is particularly sensitive to the United States. “It’s also one of the reasons the United States is not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity.”

There are also calls for stricter environmental regulations on deep sea mining, and possibly a (temporary) moratorium. The sea floor provides a wealth of ores, which in some places are almost ready to take over the so-called manganese nodules, iron nodules, manganese oxide, and a variety of other elements that have grown over millions of years.

Also read this story about Dutch company Allseas involved in deep sea mining

The Seabed Authority, which is part of UNCLOS, has identified dozens of places where the company has been granted permission to mine deep seas. Only recently have the areas worthy of protection been examined. When it turned out that this also included mining areas, those boundaries were drawn differently. “This puts the cart before the horse,” says Oude Elferink. “You first have to indicate where you don’t want any harm in any way, and only then do you look at where the businesses can start. This new treaty can help with that.”

But is there enough knowledge to determine how harmful mining and fishing really are? Some countries, including Russia and China, say no, but according to Oude Elferink, it’s not that bad, even if there are still gaps in this knowledge. Consensus is growing about the need to grant at least 30 percent of the oceans – as well as of the land – protected status. According to some scholars, this should be half. But even without this certainty, there is such a thing as the precautionary principle: if you are not sure whether there will be negative consequences, you must be more careful when allowing or expanding activities.”

Leave a Comment