Agreement is Hope

A new treaty to protect the oceans has been agreed upon by the United Nations after more than a decade of negations and a marathon of talks in the last few days. If ratification can be achieved, the UN High Seas Treaty will designate 30 percent of the world’s oceans as protected areas and in highly polarised times, bridging major divides brings hope.

‘High seas’ are international waters belong to no nation and all have the right to traverse and exploit them. This exposes marine ecosystems, from surface waters to the abyssal plains, to the impacts of free-for-all fishing, shipping, pollution and resource exploration – in addition to the increasing pressures exerted by climate change on the marine food web.

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (ifaw), the five biggest threats to life in the ocean are:

  • Ocean noise: shipping, seismic exploration by the fossil fuel industry and high-powered sonar disrupt communication and behaviour of whales and dolphins, which impacts on many elements of their lives, from feeding to mating.
  • Ship strikes: from huge cargo ships to fast pleasure craft, collisions with marine mammals, large fish and turtles often cause serious injuries and slow painful death.
  • Climate change: warming surface waters and ocean acidification threaten microscopic algae, the very base of the ocean food chain that produces 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Many other impacts, including coral reef bleaching, geographic shift of species, changes in ocean circulation, sea level rise and increased storminess are emerging, are increasingly better understood and will shape the oceans and their ecosystems far into the future.
  • Entanglement: seabirds, turtles, seals, whales, sharks become trapped or caught in (ghost) nets, lines and hooks used by commercial fisheries, leading to injuries and lesions in animals that can free themselves, and fatalities by drowning or starvation.
  • Litter: millions of tonnes of plastic and other waste enter the ocean each year. Other than entanglement, ingestion is the main reasons for plastic-related deaths, whether it is mistaken for food and fed to chicks of seabirds or accidentally ingested with prey by hunters, foragers and filter feeders. Starvation and injury are more obvious impacts than potential poisoning by toxins carried into the animal with plastic pollution.

Personally, I would add chemical pollution and overfishing to this list, and who knows what the exploitation of the sea bed for resources may bring in the future?

The objective of the High Seas Treaty is “to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, for the present and in the long term, through effective implementation of the relevant provisions of the Convention and further international cooperation and coordination” (UN).

That’s a great aim and that agreement was reached at the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction is heartening, given the diverse interests of all the stakeholders involved. Bridging divides is necessary to protect our planet and enhance the sustainability of what we do in all areas. My hope is for speedy ratification of the High Seas Treaty by the requisite minimum of 60 nations, for willingness to put the planet’s interest at the centre of our actions and for effective detection and remediation of transgressions.

Given that the oceans sustain life for the whole of our planet, are our best ally against climate change and we’ve known oceans to be in peril for a long time, it’s a no-brainer to finally afford them the protection that they deserve.

I’ll continue to make my contribution to the cause by enhancing environmental awareness and ocean literacy of young trainees aboard the sail training tall ship Pelican of London.

Featured Image: Phytoplankton bloom in the Bay of Biscay (Openverse).

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