High Seas Protections Could Help Reverse Loss of Biodiversity

On World Oceans Day, case for U.N. treaty is stronger than ever

High Seas Protections Could Help Reverse Loss of Biodiversity
Commerson's Dolphin
A Commerson’s dolphin, also known as a panda dolphin, travels down the Strait of Magellan.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

When the United Nations General Assembly designated June 8 World Oceans Day in 2018, the body was calling on mankind to recognize the benefits and resources we receive from the ocean, as well as our individual and collective duty to steward them sustainably.

The need for us all to heed that call has never been greater. Last month, another U.N. body released a report on the global state of nature and it paints a bleak picture of habitat degradation and species loss. Industrial fishing fleets are active in more than half of the ocean area, and over one-third of fish stocks are overexploited. Almost half of the shark species and their relatives assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are threatened or near threatened with extinction, as are over one-third of marine mammals. But overfishing is not the only threat to the marine environment: The cumulative impact of habitat destruction, pollution, noise from oil, gas, and mineral exploration, shipping, and other human activities is now affecting 66 percent of the ocean.

But the news isn’t all bad. Over the past decade countries have created or moved to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in their waters, putting the global community on track to meet the commitment—agreed to under the Convention on Biological Diversity—to protect 10 percent of marine waters by 2020. Studies show that effective, well managed MPAs preserve ecosystem health and help safeguard and restore species’ populations. Now, in response to those studies and more recent research, some governments are supporting protection of at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. Belgium is the most recent country to join this growing chorus.

However, there is no legal mechanism to create MPAs in the high seas, which are beyond any nation’s jurisdiction and make up nearly two-thirds of the world’s ocean. Fortunately, representatives from over 190 governments are participating in the U.N. Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction to finalize a global treaty that would address that critical gap and require robust environmental impact assessments of human activities on the high seas .

With two negotiating sessions remaining, the governments have their work cut out for them and must agree on key issues such as how the treaty will work with regional and global bodies such as regional fisheries management organizations, the International Maritime Organization, and International Seabed Authority to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of species that live in and transit through the high seas.

It is vital that conference members finalize this treaty both to protect one of Earth’s last wild frontiers and to help reverse the devastating loss of biodiversity facing our planet.

Liz Karan directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work to protect ocean life on the high seas.