The new High Seas Treaty is a critical step in the right direction for our oceans and the planet.
It has taken nearly 20 years, but finally, there has been an agreement. Last month, United Nations member states agreed on the world’s first High Seas Treaty, which will enforce the pledge to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030 made at the UN Biodiversity Conference last December; a seismic shift towards safeguarding and regenerating our vital marine ecosystems.
The treaty provides a legal framework to establish vast marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas – areas of ocean that lie out of any single nation’s jurisdiction, and which make up around two thirds of the oceans – and equitably and sustainably share its genetic resources.
Currently, only 1.2% of these legally-defined ”international waters” are protected. That means that any marine life outside those areas are at risk from overfishing, shipping traffic and exploration such as deep-sea mining, not to mention climate change.
The importance of our oceans, which cover 70% of the Earth’s surface, can’t be underestimated: they produce half the oxygen we breathe, represent 95% of the Earth’s biosphere and are our largest carbon sink. The stark truth, however, is that much has already been disastrously overexploited. Bluefish tuna in the Pacific, for example, has shrunk to 3% of its population size in just 50 years, while bottom-trawling is so damaging that experts believe affected seabed ecosystems would need hundreds, if not thousands, of years to recover.
The High Seas Treaty, then, is a critical step in the right direction. And the benefits of protecting marine environments from a traveller’s perspective are clear. Without marine protected areas (MPAs), some of the world’s most famous and important ecosystems may, by now, have been lost.
The Galapagos is a case in point. As one of the largest MPAs in the world, covering 138,000 square kilometres (due to expand to 198,000 square kilometres), the islands’ waters are home to a globally important array of habitats, from coastal mangroves and coral reefs, to underwater volcanoes washed by deep ocean currents. With this variety comes a huge range of wildlife – over 3,000 species, including one of the world’s highest rates of endemic species.
It’s that rich biodiversity that attracts 120,000 travellers each year, who come to swim with sealions, snorkel with marine iguanas, and scuba dive with hammerhead sharks and manta rays. Of course, the monetary benefits of tourism to the islands have to be balanced with the environmental and community impact of tourism. That’s why numbers are restricted and operators carefully regulated to meet demand without putting pressure on the environment.
While the High Seas Treaty is a huge step in the right direction, what happens next – ratification by all signatory countries, followed by the hard work of implementation – is what really matters. We need a collaborative and genuine effort to protect our waters, by governments, international bodies, industry and travellers, to secure healthy oceans for the next generation.