UN ocean treaty summit collapses as states accused of dragging out talks

Conservationists despair at ‘glacial pace’ of negotiations to protect wildlife and oversee fishing amid high seas’ ‘governance vacuum’

UN member states have failed to agree on a treaty to protect the high seas from exploitation, with scientists, environmentalists and conservation organisations blaming states that were “dragging their feet” for the “glacial pace” of talks.

The longer the negotiations took, the more wildlife would be lost from the ocean, they warned, urging ministers and heads of state to work together with the president of the UN high seas conference to speed up a further round of negotiations to close a “governance vacuum” on the high seas.

Most of the ocean lies outside the exclusive economic zones controlled by individual states. Of this 64% of the high seas that lie beyond territorial limits, only 1.2% is now protected.

One scientist described the treaty as the most significant ocean protection agreement in four decades. Known as the BBNJ (biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction) ocean treaty, its aim is to create a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas to prevent loss of wildlife, oversee industrial fishing, and share out the “genetic resources” of the sea.

Dr Essam Mohammed, Eritrea’s representative in the negotiations and interim director general of WorldFish, a non-profit research institute, said: “At the moment, there is a governance vacuum in the high seas, and for the ocean and developing countries, the status quo simply isn’t an option.”

Swiftly advancing marine technology would lead to “an unprecedented race for marine resources in unregulated waters”, Mohammed said. “The delay in striking a deal means high risk for the health of the ocean.

“All member states of the UN need to recognise the urgency to save the ocean and the people who depend on it to survive,” he said.

Prof Alex Rogers, a marine ecologist and science director of the non-profit company REV Ocean, said: “There are states here that are dragging their feet and deliberately prolonging the treaty [talks]. But we know the ocean is being degraded and is losing biodiversity. Climate is also having an impact on the ocean. The longer these negotiations are strung out, the more biodiversity we lose.”

The negotiations, the fourth round since 2018, ended late on Friday without agreement and without a schedule set for further discussions. Rena Lee, the Singaporean president of the BBNJ conference, said: “I believe that with continued commitment, determination and dedication, we will be able to build bridges and close the remaining gaps.”

It now rests with the United Nations general assembly to give the green light for another round of talks. Observers hope an agreement will be reached before the end of this year, and urged political leaders to work with the UN to make it happen.

Last month, nearly 50 countries formed a “high-ambition coalition” at a French summit in Brest aimed at getting the deal done quickly.

Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace, who attended last week’s talks, said: “If the high-ambition countries are serious about bringing the treaty to a close they need to work with President Rena Lee to address the painfully slow progress made in the last two weeks.” McCallum criticised the “glacial pace” of talks and said negotiators spent “hours and hours” on non-contentious sentences.

“The majority of parties want to conclude by 2022,” he said. “But the longer it continues, the weaker it is going to get.”

Some countries, including Russia and Iceland, have called for fisheries to be excluded from the agreement.

Currently a patchwork of international bodies and treaties manage resources and human activity in areas beyond national jurisdiction – including fishing, whaling, shipping and seabed mining. However, they vary greatly in their mandates, and their jurisdictions often overlap.

Despite two decades of discussion, there is still no treaty protecting international waters, making the establishment of marine protected areas or other safeguards legally challenging.


Karen McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

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