Just days after more than 190 countries agreed on a unified treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas—nearly half the planet’s surface—the deal is running into the harsh reality of what it takes to get any major decision out of the United States Senate.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force in 1994, before marine biodiversity was a well-established concept. Leading up to last week’s negotiations in New York, it took more than 20 years to arrive at an updated framework to protect marine life in the regions outside national boundary waters, known as the high seas, The Associated Press reports.
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“We only really have two major global commons—the atmosphere and the oceans,” said Georgetown marine biologist Rebecca Helm. While the oceans may draw less attention, “protecting this half of Earth’s surface is absolutely critical to the health of our planet.”
But in the aftermath of that agreement, “it’s unclear whether the Senate will ratify the final text of the treaty, which would also need to be approved by the United Nations,” the Washington Post reports. “And without Senate ratification, the United States cannot formally participate in the historic deal.”
Senate ratification “would ensure that U.S. officials could join international discussions about ocean protection, and it would encourage other nations to consult U.S. companies on activities that might interfere with their interests, such as fishing and deep sea mining,” the Post adds.
But on Monday, a handful of key senators said they hadn’t read the details of the pact. And while Senate climate hawks Ed Markey (D-MA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) were cautiously optimistic about ratification, their colleague Brian Schatz (D-HI) had his doubts.
“I don’t know that we have the votes for it,” he told the Post. “Republicans are allergic to anything that mentions the United Nations.”
Earlier, Nichola Clark, an oceans expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts who observed the negotiations, called the treaty “a once in a generation opportunity to protect the oceans—a major win for biodiversity.” And the Global Environment Facility, a multilateral environmental fund that works on climate change, biodiversity, international waters, and land degradation, among other areas, applauded the deal and committed to help get it implemented.
“We are ready to continue and intensify support for biodiversity protection and ocean health on the high seas,” CEO Carlos Manuel Rodríguez said in a release. “We will support national ratification and implementation of the convention once negotiations have concluded.”
Praise also poured in from Canadian environmental groups on Sunday, with Greenpeace Canada calling the treaty a monumental win for the world’s oceans, and SeaBlue Canada applauding the deal as an incredible move for marine protection, The Canadian Press writes.
“This is the largest conservation effort in history,” said Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign. “This is a moment that all people should be celebrating.”
The treaty will create a new body to manage conservation of ocean life and establish marine protected areas in the high seas, AP says. Clark said that’s critical to achieve the recent pledge under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 30% of the planet’s waters, as well as its land, for conservation.
The treaty also establishes ground rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for commercial activities in the oceans.
“It means all activities planned for the high seas need to be looked at, though not all will go through a full assessment,” said Jessica Battle, an oceans governance expert at the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
Many marine species—including dolphins, whales, sea turtles and many fish—make long annual migrations, crossing national borders and the high seas, AP explains. Efforts to protect them, along with human communities that rely on fishing or tourism related to marine life, have previously been hampered by a confusing patchwork of laws.
“This treaty will help to knit together the different regional treaties to be able to address threats and concerns across species’ ranges,” said Battle.
That protection also helps coastal biodiversity and economies, said Gladys Martinez de Lemos, executive director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, a non-profit that focuses on environmental issues across Latin America.
“Governments have taken an important step that strengthens the legal protection of two-thirds of the ocean and with it marine biodiversity and the livelihoods of coastal communities,” she said.
The question now, as with any UN agreement or accord, is how well the ambitious treaty will be implemented.
The high seas have long suffered exploitation due to commercial fishing and mining, as well as pollution from chemicals and plastics. The new agreement is about “acknowledging that the ocean is not a limitless resource, and it requires global cooperation to use the ocean sustainably,” said Malin Pinsky, a biologist at Rutgers University.
Greenpeace’s Sarah King agreed that the unified agreement treaty, which applies to nearly half the planet’s surface, will be used as a tool to improve the governance of the high seas.
“Scientists have said that 30% protection is the minimum that we need in order to begin to restore marine biodiversity and allow marine ecosystems to build resilience in light of climate change and plastic pollution and all the other threats that they face,” she told CP.
“So it’s really important that governments act quickly to create a network of protected areas in the high seas.”
She said it’s now up to Canada—and all global governments—to ratify and implement the treaty as soon as possible.
“I’m very proud of Canada’s contributions during the negotiation process and how we engaged with countries to build support to achieve this agreement,” Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said in a statement.
“I look forward to working with our international partners to implement this landmark agreement and on integrated, holistic approaches to ocean conservation.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault also celebrated the treaty in a joint statement issued alongside Murray.
“Our oceans are at the core of who we are as a country. With the longest coastlines in the world, marine and coastal areas are essential to Canada’s economy and to Canadians’ livelihoods across the country,” the ministers said in their joint-statement.
“We will continue to work with our international partners to promote a bluer, cleaner, more sustainable world.”
Laura Meller, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic, said China and members of the High Ambition Coalition—which includes the European Union, the United States, and United Kingdom—were key players in brokering the deal.
“Now the hard work of ratification and protecting the oceans begins,” Meller said in a statement. “We must build on this momentum to see off new threats like deep sea mining and focus on putting protection in place.”
“This is an incredible move for marine protection across our ocean,” SeaBlue Canada wrote in a tweet. “Thank you for the incredible work that went into this historic moment.”
Major segments of this report were first published by The Associated Press and The Canadian Press on March 5, 2023.
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