Historic agreement to protect the world's oceans reached after decade of talks

A sea turtle swims over corals on Moore Reef in Gunggandji Sea Country off the coast of Queensland in eastern Australia. Credit: AP Photo/Sam McNeil, File

The United Nations (UN) has reached an historic agreement to protect huge parts of the world's oceans after a decade of negotiations.

The High Seas Treaty is a legally binding deal which aims to place 30% of the seas into protected areas by 2030, in an effort to safeguard biodiversity within international waters.

The treaty will create a new body to manage conservation of ocean life and establish marine protected areas in the high seas, defined as the regions outside national boundary waters.

It also establishes ground rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for commercial activities in the oceans.

Negotiators from more than 100 countries completed the UN treaty, which was finally agreed upon late on Saturday evening at UN headquarters in New York, a day after the original deadline.

"The ship has reached the shore," Rena Lee, UN Ambassador for Oceans, said after she brought down the gavel following weeks of sometimes protracted negotiations.

"Our children don't go on excursions, they go on learning journeys. And I can safely say that this has been the learning journey of a lifetime."

'This has been the learning journey of a lifetime,' Rena Lee said

Many marine species - including dolphins, whales and sea turtles - make long annual migrations, crossing national borders and the high seas, defined as the oceans that lie beyond exclusive economic zones.

The high seas have long suffered exploitation due to commercial fishing and mining, as well as pollution from chemicals and plastics.

Efforts to protect marine species, and human communities that rely on fishing or tourism related to marine life, have previously been hampered by a confusing patchwork of laws.

“This treaty will help to knit together the different regional treaties to be able to address threats and concerns across species’ ranges,” said Jessica Battle, an oceans governance expert at the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Greenpeace says around 4.2 million square miles of ocean has to be placed under protection every year until the end of the decade to meet the treaty's target. Very little of the high seas is currently under any protection.

Fish swim near some bleached coral at Kisite Mpunguti Marine park, Kenya. Credit: AP Photo/Brian Inganga, File

The last international agreement on ocean protection was signed in 1982 - the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, before marine biodiversity was a well-established concept.

An updated framework to protect marine life in the high seas had been in discussions for many years, but previous efforts to reach an agreement had repeatedly stalled.

The question now is how well the ambitious treaty will be brought into action, with countries having to meet again to formally adopt the agreement, before working out the practicalities of implementation.

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