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Delegates come close, but fail again to clinch high seas protection treaty

seas protection
seas protection

U.N. member states came tantalizingly close to sealing a deal for a high-stakes, legally binding treaty to conserve biodiversity on the high seas, areas beyond national jurisdiction that comprise two-thirds of the global ocean. At the close of negotiations on Aug. 26 in New York, however, delegates had failed to net consensus. Top sticking points included fair access to marine resources for all and how to establish marine protected areas.

The meeting of 168 U.N. member states ended with a commitment to reconvene before the year is over.

“We’re closer to the finish line than we’ve ever been before but … we still need a little more time,” Rena Lee of Singapore, president of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, the body negotiating the treaty, said to delegates.

This was the fifth of four planned diplomatic sessions that began in 2017 following more than 10 years of discussion. The two-week-long meeting included a ramped-up dual schedule of negotiating groups and plenary sessions aimed at finally reaching a deal.

The idea is for the treaty to close governance gaps and address contemporary challenges not covered by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was adopted in 1982, before present-day threats to biodiversity were anticipated.

Home to up to 10 million different species, many as yet unidentified, the high seas are a vast, resource-rich global commons worth a lot — no one knows just how much. They belong to everyone and no one, and so far, there is no comprehensive, agreed-upon framework governing resource extraction or conservation there.

Technological advances enabling greater access to high seas resources are exposing marine ecosystems to severe impacts from fisheries and other extractive industries. Pollution and climate change are further destabilizing ocean systems that buffer the planet from global warming, provide a primary protein source for more than 3 billion people, and affect the livelihoods of almost 600 million, according to a 2022 report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Four areas key to a sustainable biodiversity conservation agreement were discussed in New York: sharing marine genetic resources (MGRs) fairly; implementing area-based management tools like marine protected areas (MPAs); setting standards for environmental impact assessments for activities on the high seas; and ensuring less-industrialized countries can meet treaty objectives through a mechanism for sharing marine technology and knowledge.

“Quite incredible” progress was made, according to Pakistan representative Kasim Aziz Butt, speaking at the final plenary session on behalf of the Group of 77 (or G77) plus China, the biggest negotiating bloc of less-industrialized nations. “Had this flexibility and openness to appreciating the vital needs of our delegates across all parts of this package come earlier, perhaps we could have seen an agreement wrapped up today,” he said.


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