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CNA Explains: What is the UN High Seas Treaty and how will it protect the world’s oceans?

BANGKOK: Countries have taken a major step towards vast protections of the planet’s oceans after agreeing to a historic United Nations treaty, following years of tense negotiations on the issue.

The UN High Seas Treaty would allow the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) and allow other conservation efforts on the high seas – ocean areas that exist outside national borders and have previously never had a legal mechanism to cover them.

This equates to about two-thirds of all the ocean in the world, where human exploitation, including overfishing, illegal fishing and seabed mining, as well as climate change, poses enormous threats to critical ecosystems.

With the agreement of the treaty, which was negotiated at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York over the weekend under the presidency of Mrs Rena Lee, Singapore’s Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues and Special Envoy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, there will now be a framework to protect ocean biodiversity.

The treaty will still need to be ratified and enacted by member states, but it gives momentum to the global 30×30 pledge to protect at least 30 per cent of the planet’s land and 30 per cent of its seas by 2030.

The breakthrough was lauded by Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Sunday (Mar 5). In a Facebook post, Dr Balakrishan described the treaty as “a timely achievement and a major milestone in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in our oceans, and will go a long way towards protecting our global commons”.

“In today’s increasingly fragmented world, a rules-based multilateral order has never been more important,” he wrote.

CNA takes a look at why there is a need for the treaty, what it entails and how the rules may potentially affect nations in Southeast Asia.

WHAT ARE THE HIGH SEAS AND WHY THE NEED TO PROTECT IT?

The high seas are open oceans that do not fall under any country’s jurisdiction. They cover nearly half of the surface of the planet.

Because it is not owned, many parts of the ocean across the world are functionally lawless. While there are some rules, these are difficult to enforce and are often fragmented in nature. The rules tend to focus on single issues – like mining, fishing or shipping – rather than a goal on protecting biodiversity.

Ocean areas that fall outside of individual countries’ territories are therefore vulnerable to a range of damaging human activities.

The high seas are also becoming busier as shipping lanes expand and countries scour the globe to feed their hungry populations. As a result of this, pollution is a major transnational issue.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, only 7.9 per cent of the global ocean is recognised as protected. And only 1.2 per cent of the high seas fall under a designated MPA.

The marine biodiversity in the high seas is diverse and critical to food chains as well as the ocean ecosystem resilience. Impacts in distant waters can directly put coastal communities in particular at risk.

Oceans are a key solution to climate change too – they hold an estimated quarter of all human-caused emissions and 90 per cent of excess heat –  but have been witnessing drops in pH and oxygen.

Increased acidity has direct negative consequences on marine life and can cause cascading risks for human populations.

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WHY IS THE TREATY IMPORTANT?

Discussions on the treaty began in 2004 and have been held back by disputes over language, the lobbying efforts of major industries and powerful countries as well as the perceived logistical nightmare of enforcing it.

Developing nations have also felt aggrieved that they would be penalised or made responsible for marine biodiversity problems caused by the overexploitation of resources by advanced economies.

Now, the groundwork is done to allow vast areas of ocean to be legally categorised as MPAs. That would restrict what activities are allowed within those areas, including stopping fishing in important areas of biodiversity.

It is hoped that new protection areas could stop the degradation of species and allow marine populations to recover.

“Fishing is of course just part of the myriad of human induced issues affecting our oceans and high seas areas. Marine pollution and deep sea mining are also growing crises for our oceans, requiring substantive and internationally agreed actions to address these and prevent damage to our fragile marine ecosystems,” said independent fisheries expert and vice-president of the Green World Foundation Dominic Chakrabongse.

The Green World Foundation is an organisation that aims to provide knowledge on the Thai environment through the media.

HOW WILL SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS BE IMPACTED BY THE TREATY?

Asian waters are the most trafficked in the world as major thoroughfares for global cargo, while more than 60 per cent of the world’s marine capture fish production comes from Asia and the Pacific. Asia is also home to nine of the ten busiest ports in the world.

Most Southeast Asian countries do not have their national waters forming a boundary with the high seas. However, some international fishing fleets will need to follow any new rules that are established under the treaty. This is especially so for areas in the Indian Ocean, the nearest ocean area that would fall under the treaty.

“Of course, Thailand, Indonesia and a number of fishing nations in Southeast Asia do have distant water fleets, which will have to abide by these new regulations,” Chakrabongse said.

“It remains to be seen how Southeast Asian nations will react to the ruling and how they will enforce compliance of their fleets around the world,” he said.

Chakrabongse gave the example of the Saya de Malha Bank, one of the largest submerged ocean banks in the world, located in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

“The area is vast and covered in seagrass meadows and coral reefs. As a result, it is a biodiversity hotspot, home to countless diverse species. However, this also makes it a prized target for fishing fleets from all across the region – even Thai trawlers travel to the Bank to collect their catches.

“Due to the lack of international agreement it can be difficult to effectively police this important ecosystem,” Chakrabongse said.

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WHAT’S NEXT?

First, the treaty needs to be formally adopted at a later UN session and then ratified by at least 60 parties.

A conference of the parties – or COP – will be set up so that country representatives can meet on a regular basis and hold each other accountable to the agreement. An initial fund will also be set up to deliver the treaty, including 820 million euros (US$1.18 billion) from the European Union.

But enforcement of the treaty will be a major challenge going forward, given that damaging high sea activities are far offshore and can be difficult to monitor.

There are still questions over how MPAs will be determined, who will enforce them and what will still be allowed within them. The issue of scientific research and who benefits from the breakthroughs remains a sore point that needs to be ironed out.

“The agreement is of course a positive step forward but without adequate monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms in the form of satellite monitoring, vessel monitoring and inspection and supply chain traceability, it will be difficult for member states to ensure their fishing fleets, deep sea mining companies and other stakeholders are not circumventing regulations and conducting potentially damaging activities within protected areas,” Chakrabongse said.

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