Giving our oceans a fighting chance against the climate crisis

A new UN treaty contains landmark tools for the conservation and management of the world’s international waters.

Published : Jun 20, 2023 15:56 IST - 6 MINS READ

Who’s protecting fish and other sea creatures in international waters?

Who’s protecting fish and other sea creatures in international waters? | Photo Credit: Henley Spiers/AP/picture alliance

The United Nations adopted a “critical” landmark treaty to protect vast swaths of vital ocean ecosystems on June 19, in a move that has been welcomed by environmental groups that believe it will help reverse the loss of marine biodiversity and promote sustainable development.

“The High Seas Treaty is integral to being able to protect the ocean,” Rebecca Hubbard, director of the High Seas Alliance, told DW. The alliance is made up of more than 50 NGOs that want to strengthen ocean governance.

“But it is also crucial to mitigate climate breakdown and to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world,” added Hubbard.

The news comes as scientists announced the highest global sea surface temperatures for April and May since recording began in 1850. Oceans are the “world’s greatest ally against climate change”, as they generate 50 per cent of global oxygen and capture 90 per cent of excess heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN.

At the meeting adopting the treaty, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said oceans are the lifeblood of the planet and that the agreement will give them a fighting chance.

What does the historic oceans treaty leave unresolved?

The legally binding treaty, agreed in March after five rounds of protracted UN-led talks with negotiators from over 100 countries, now must be signed and ratified by 60 countries before coming into force. But the adoption marks a significant turning point in the effort to protect the high seas and preserve marine life.

The treaty is expected to contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, while also protecting the rights and interests of all countries involved.

Fishing, shipping, tourism, and ocean protection are currently controlled by around 20 organisations. However, their regulations only apply to a distance of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the coast. Farther out, international waters start, and individual states do not have any power or say.

Although the high seas make up more than half of the surface of the Earth and 61 per cent of all oceans, only one per cent of international waters are under protection.

Illegal fishing, overfishing, and other forms of damage to the ecosystem—such as deep-sea mining and oil and gas drilling—can hardly be consistently monitored, tracked, or prosecuted.

Conservationists hope the treaty will help fulfill the international obligation to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030, as agreed in a landmark December 2022 deal.

“This is the minimum scientists have said we need to prevent ecosystem collapse in the oceans—our greatest shared resource and the foundation of life on this planet,” Arlo Hemphill, Greenpeace USA’s senior oceans campaigner, told the AFP news agency back in March. He added that it is “the biggest conservation agreement in the history of the world”.

The treaty creates a legal framework to allow for the creation of ocean sanctuaries. But many questions remain unanswered, including where and when the sanctuaries will be established and how remote areas away from the coast will be protected. Once it has been ratified by individual states “that work can begin”, said Rebecca Hubbard, adding that ratification must happen as quickly as possible to “halt the biodiversity crisis that is occurring in the ocean”.

The goal is to have the treaty ratified by June 2025, when the UN Ocean Conference takes place in France, said Hubbard.

“It is very fast for ratification, but it’s absolutely achievable and it’s absolutely necessary,” said Hubbard. “We’re calling on the High Ambition Coalition to drive that ratification process and to support countries around the world to do so.”

Also Read | Sea change: Why India needs lessons from Maldives to tackle climate crisis

Why is a healthy underwater world so important for humans and our planet?

The resources of the ocean do not just sustain coastal dwellers but almost three billion people worldwide. The entire sea industry has a worth of $3 trillion—5 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product.

The ocean is not just important for beach tourists and fishers. We also need it in order to generate sustainable wave and tidal energy, as well as for the production of commodities and even medicine.

Some agents used to fight leukemia, for instance, are derived from a shallow water sponge called Tectitethya crypta, which can be found in the waters of the Caribbean. The poison of the fish-eating sea snail Conus magus is being used to develop an effective painkiller. Many similar possibilities have yet to be explored, but scientists see a huge potential for the treatment of diseases.

Why is climate change so stressful for oceans?

More than half of the total amount of oxygen in our atmosphere is created by creatures in the ocean. At the same time, oceans store 50 times more carbon dioxide than what is currently found in our atmosphere. The warmer the ocean gets, the less CO2 it can store. It is a vicious cycle: the warmer it gets, the less our oceans can protect the planet from even more extreme weather events.

If temperatures keep increasing at their current pace, scientists believe many shellfish such as mussels and snails will be unable to survive. This is due to ocean acidification: if the CO2 content in the seawater increases, the PH level in the water changes. The increasing acidity hampers the creation of the chalky shells of such animals. This throws entire biospheres off-balance and in turn could threaten economic sectors like oyster and mussel breeding.

Rising temperatures in the atmosphere—triggered by the burning of coal, oil, and gas—also change ocean currents as the water gets warmer. This can mean death for many creatures, such as corals. Corals live in symbiosis with colorful algae that help feed them. The warming of the water can lead to algae death, which means more stress for corals, leading many to lose their colour, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.

How can we protect ocean ecosystems?

If nothing changes, half of all sea dwellers will be critically endangered by the end of this century, according to estimates by UNESCO. This does not necessarily mean we can not use the ocean any longer. It just means we have to use it in a way that does not harm it, or at least only harms it to the extent that it can regenerate on its own.

As an example, 10 million tonnes of fish have to be discarded every year because of bad fishing practices and processing. This waste could be prevented and in turn directly decrease pressure on our oceans.

Another example is sewage. Around 80 per cent of global wastewater is currently being diverted into oceans unfiltered. In the world’s poorest countries that number is closer to 95 per cent. This wastewater pollutes, contaminates, and destroys oceans and coastal regions. Building sustainable sewage systems, especially in developing countries, would protect ocean ecosystems and contribute to better drinking water supplies in many places.

Also Read | For coral reefs, things are not looking too good

Will a new treaty help save the oceans?

According to the UN’s environment program, international treaties are one of the best ways to stop the destruction of oceans.

Many treaties designed to protect coastal waters have been signed in recent years. Some have already had a positive effect on the environment; many, however, have failed to meet their goals. That has to do with the fact that agreements are always dependent upon national parliaments—first in turning them into law, and secondly in allocating enough resources to the institutions and projects able to help achieve stated goals.

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