UN high seas treaty is a landmark – but science needs to fill the gaps
As the planet warms, the Arctic’s permanent ice cover is melting, and China is planning a shipping route through the Central Arctic #Ocean. This could become a regular passageway for shipping between Asia and Europe within a decade. In the Pacific, mining companies are exploring the deep sea bed for metals that they say are needed for the batteries that will power the coming green-energy transition. But these activities won’t face scrutiny under the treaty, because the treaty’s provisions don’t overrule regulations laid down by the authorities that oversee existing high seas activities. These include the International Maritime Organization, which is responsible for shipping; the International Seabed Authority, which oversees deep-sea mining; and some 17 regional fisheries management organizations tasked with regulating fisheries in various parts of the ocean, including Antarctica. Military activities and existing fishing and commercial shipping are, in fact, exempt from the treaty.
This means, for example, that the treaty cannot create protected areas in places already covered by fishing agreements, even if that fishing is unsustainable and depleting stocks. This is a gaping hole. [...] Once the treaty becomes law (after it has been ratified in the national parliaments of at least 60 countries), it can demand that proposed ocean activities — such as climate-intervention experiments — are subject to stringent environmental impact assessments. But it cannot do the same for activities already under way.
Nor will the treaty end current offshore environmental violations. [...]
Nonetheless, as humanity’s first serious attempt to challenge the carnage that prevails offshore, the high seas treaty is a triumph for diplomacy, particularly at a time when multilateralism is under sustained pressure. At present, just 1% of international waters are protected. That proportion is now set to grow, and this will help to maintain the health of our oceans and stem biodiversity loss. In securing this deal, the international community has given itself a fighting chance of coming good on earlier promises — most recently reiterated under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity — to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.