A tiny fraction of the high seas are protected. Why a UN treaty is needed now more than ever


Latest round of UN negotiations on marine biodiversity treaty to wrap up Friday

By Jaela Bernstien, CBC News

As two weeks of negotiations at United Nations headquarters in New York City wrap up Friday, many hope the culmination will be a legally binding international agreement to conserve and protect marine biodiversity in the high seas.

The treaty has been more than a decade in the making, but at the previous round of talks held earlier this year, delegates failed to nail down the specifics.

With climate change, fishing, shipping and resource extraction intensifying pressure on one of the last wild places on Earth, calls for a UN high seas biodiversity treaty for areas beyond national jurisdiction, also known as BBNJ, are more urgent than ever.

While international waters represent two-thirds of the world's oceans — and 95 per cent of habitable space on the planet — only about one per cent are protected.

"More and more studies have been showing that marine species have been rapidly going extinct and we need to take a bold action," said Jihyun Lee, a youth ambassador on the High Seas Alliance, made up of more than 40 NGOs seeking to conserve the high seas.

"We don't have any time to waste," she said during a press briefing at the UN on Wednesday.


Catherine Coumans, research co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said the sea floor of the high seas is hardly an underwater desert.

"If you strip mine the seabed for minerals and metals, and destroy the biodiversity that exists there, that will have impacts and effects on all of the biodiversity in the water column above the seabed," she said in an interview from Ottawa.

"It's almost like having a tropical forest and saying, 'We're just going to remove all the soil and all the microbes, micro-organisms and everything that's in the soil, and somehow the rest of the forest is going to be fine.'"

Safeguarding that ecosystem is why, Coumans said, a UN high seas treaty is desperately needed. 

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