After two decades of deliberations, a landmark treaty, the High Seas Biodiversity Treaty, was finally adopted on March 4, 2023. This critical agreement strives to safeguard the abundant biodiversity within the High Seas, international waters constituting approximately two-thirds of the world’s oceans. As it stands, one-third of the global oceans are within distinct countries’ exclusive economic zones, leaving the remainder susceptible to harmful effects of pollution, overfishing, seabed mining, and climate change.
Also termed the “Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty”, this accord extends the existing UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established in 1982. Once ratified by at least sixty states, it will necessitate environmental impact assessments for those seeking to mine the ocean’s depths. The International Maritime Organization and the Conference of the Parties (COP) will supervise its enforcement, routinely meeting to ensure member states compliance with regulations. Each state will be subsequently required to implement these provisions into their domestic laws.
The treaty arrives during a time of critical need. Worldwide marine species are facing disturbingly high rates of decline. This newly ratified agreement builds upon the goals defined at the biodiversity conference in Montreal the previous December, where participants committed to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s surface by 2030. Accordingly, around 30% of the High Seas are designated to be protected under “marine protected areas.”
The implications of this agreement are significant for both plant and animal marine species. The ocean, a massive three-dimensional habitat, covers nearly 99 percent of all habitable space on Earth. Astonishingly, most of Earth’s life exists underwater. Around 230,000 species have been identified in the ocean, believed to be merely 10 percent of the estimated two million species inhabiting these waters.
Regrettably, human activities have severely impacted both our atmosphere and our oceans. Decades of pollution have rendered many coastal waters into uninhabitable “dead zones,” overwhelmed with nitrogen fertilizer. Overfishing has exhausted about 90 percent of our ocean’s resources. As a major carbon sink, the ocean absorbs more carbon than it emits, leading to increased acidity threatening species such as lobsters, crabs, and particularly corals. The world’s coral reefs are suffering from “bleaching” and dying rapidly.
Shipping, a notable contributor to global carbon emissions, primarily takes place in international waters. Interestingly, emissions from cargo and cruise
ships inadvertently generate cloud condensation nuclei, intensifying clouds and reflecting sunlight, potentially counteracting up to 40 percent of global warming. Despite the undeniable negative impact of international shipping, this unintended benefit underscores the potential of cloud brightening as a strategy for mitigating climate change and preserving our oceans.
In fact, Australian scientists are currently utilizing cloud brightening to shield coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef from escalating temperatures. Such techniques could provide considerable relief for marine life enduring excessively warm waters.
Oceanic plankton, responsible for half of our oxygen supply, are crucial for our survival. These tiny organisms, comprising both plant (phytoplankton) and animal (zooplankton) species, form a significant portion of the marine food chain, with zooplankton such as krill serving as a primary food source for whales. However, nutrient overloads can result in harmful algal blooms like red tides.
The effectiveness of this novel treaty hinges on its ability to regulate salinity, acidity, and nutrient levels in the ocean to preserve the complex food chain upon which we all depend. It is a cause for celebration that 193 countries, after ten years of consultations, managed to agree. However, environmentalists were expecting more comprehensive measures. Regrettably, loopholes in the treaty may permit irresponsible entities to continue activities like fishing, shipping, and deep-sea mining without adequate accountability for the consequences. There’s still much more to achieve!