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What to know about the new U.N. high seas treaty — and the next steps for the accord

Overfishing and poaching have been detrimental to marine wildlife, including the Shkodra's lake, a body of water that straddles Albania and Montenegro, which is shown above.
Gent Shkullaku
AFP via Getty Images
Overfishing and poaching have been detrimental to marine wildlife, including the Shkodra's lake, a body of water that straddles Albania and Montenegro, which is shown above.

After nearly two decades of planning and negotiations, members of the United Nations have agreed on an international treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters, which cover nearly two-thirds of the ocean.

The agreement, finalized late Saturday, lays the groundwork for global collaboration to tackle the ocean's persistent threats like biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change.

"I believe that this treaty is like a second chance for the ocean," said Gladys Martínez, the executive director of AIDA, a group focused on protecting the environment, primarily in Latin America and has been involved with treaty discussions.

The historic treaty is a major step toward the goal to protect at least 30% of ocean areas by 2030 — a target President Biden laid out for the U.S. in 2021 and part of a broader land and marine conservation U.N.-led commitment known as 30x30.

Here's what to know about why this treaty matters:

Right now, international waters are largely unregulated

The ocean is facing threats on multiple fronts.

Commercial fishing operations span more than halfthe world's ocean and have been detrimental to species and their habitats. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than a third of all sharks, rays and a shark-like fish called chimaera are at risk of extinction because of overfishing.

The organization also foundthat almost every species group in the ocean has encountered plastic pollution, often swallowing or being entangled by it.

Additionally, manmade climate change causes the ocean to get hotter, threatening marine life and coastal communities.

Those problems are compounded by another dilemma: right now, international waters are largely governed by a fragmented patchwork of global agreements and organizations.

"There was no way to coordinate between these kinds of organizations," said Elizabeth Mendenhall, a marine affairs professor at the University of Rhode Island who researches ocean governance.

"So areas get overburdened, overexploited, they get more than they can handle because there isn't like a coordinated, holistic perspective," she added.

Another issue is that there is no international body committed to preserving biological diversity in regions outside territorial seas or ground rules on accessing genetic resources found in international waters, Mendenhall said.

The treaty has four main objectives

Lisa Speer, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's International Oceans program, told NPR's A Martínez on Morning Edition the biggest conservation-related accomplishment of the new treaty is that it paves the way to establish large-scale marine protected areas, which the NRDC describes as the "ocean's equivalent of a Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park."

That means, in about 30 percent of the world's oceans, damaging human activities like commercial fishing and oil gas drilling could be prohibited or limited.

"And the science tells us that is the single most important thing we can do to enhance ocean resilience in the face of growing threats related to climate change," Speer said.

The treaty will also regulate countries and companies who can access and benefit sharing from the commercialization of "marine genetic resources," which can be useful for the creation of pharmaceuticals or cosmetics.

According to Speer, who was part of the U.N. negotiating team, ensuring those resources will be shared in a fair and equitable way was a major point of tension in the negotiations.

"Who gets to decide what happens in this global commons was a fundamental issue on the table during the negotiations," she said.

Similarly, the treaty is aimed at making research conducted in international waters more accessible and inclusive, especially for developing countries.

A fourth major component of the agreement is setting global standards for environmental impact assessments on commercial activities in the ocean. These evaluations will also consider cumulative impact, or combined and incremental impacts, resulting from different activities.

Countries will need to work together

Speer from the NRDC said that implementing the treaty is not only crucial for the waters outside national jurisdictions, but also for the regions and countries within it.

"It's important because billions of people around the world rely on the ocean for basic needs — their food, their jobs, their income, their sustenance, culturally as well as economically," she said.

After the yearslong effort to finalize the treaty, it is now up to countries to decide whether they will adopt the treaty into domestic law.

For example, the U.S. hasyet to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was the last international treaty on ocean protection signed over 40 years ago.

"We have the text, so we have to turn this text into our reality," Martínez from AIDA said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.
Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.