An underwater landscape at Beveridge Reef, Niue, just one of the many areas a high seas treaty is intended to protect. Photo: UNDP (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)FIRST PUBLISHED MAR 7, 2022

By Sam Sachdeva

WELLINGTON  (THE NEWSROOM) — As negotiators meet to hash out the final parts of a treaty to protect ocean biodiversity, Pacific leaders say delays in taking action cannot extend any further

Talk about the high seas, and many will think of a vast area of lawlessness. But it’s pollution, not pirates, that are the main cause of concern to some world leaders and other experts.

Roughly two-thirds of the world’s oceans by area (or 95 percent by volume) are beyond the control or responsibility of any nation.

That has left gaps in protecting the waters from overfishing, pollution, climate change and other threats, despite the flow-on effects for the entire world.

The United Nations started the process of developing a new set of rules in 2015, but negotiations have dragged out in the years since, with a fourth (and ostensibly final) round of talks set down for March 2020 but delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those rescheduled negotiations start in New York on Monday, and at an event organised by the Helen Clark Foundation to discuss work towards the treaty, speakers warned of the consequences of further inaction.

Angelique Pouponneau, an environmental lawyer and former chief executive of the Seychelles’ Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust, said while 1982’s UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provided a framework governing the oceans, it did not include specific processes for protecting biodiversity beyond countries’ exclusive economic zones.

“Although the obligation to conserve is there, what we have found is that because the high seas belong to everyone, but it’s really no one’s responsibility, we’ve often heard the term the Wild Wild West…

“There is little control of the activities taking place, little understanding as to how these activities are affecting biodiversity and nearby environments, and without any way of saying, ‘Enough is enough’, [there’s] no way of really monitoring and understanding what harm has been caused.”

Former prime minister Helen Clark made a similar point, saying it was a “no-brainer” to update the 40-year-old convention to cover areas of global value.

“We can’t have 95 percent of our global commons left as ganglands without the rule of law, and unfortunately that’s the risk you run when you don’t have specific provisions and international law for those areas that are beyond national jurisdiction.”

Clark said the issue was similar to the preservation of Antarctica, which no country owned but where there had long been a UN treaty in place governing its conservation and preservation.

New Zealand had long stood behind the importance of the rules-based international order and multilateralism, and needed to throw its full voice and weight behind the negotiations.

“We’re all connected by a mosaic of exclusive economic zones and these areas beyond national boundaries … so I just have to underline that what happens on the high seas out here directly impacts our own marine areas within our exclusive economic zones and national boundaries,” Clark said.

She had concerns about New Zealand’s continued bottom-trawling of seamounts in the South Pacific, which did incredible damage and would hopefully be banned under a sufficiently strong treaty, while deep sea mining was another activity that could cause significant harm to ocean ecosystems.

Palau president Surangel Whipps Jr said the small Pacific nation had stepped up efforts to protect its near-shore areas and exclusive economic zone in recent years, but was disproportionately affected by the inaction of other countries who needed to play their part.

“It’s been said many times we only contribute .03 percent to the global carbon emissions, but we’re hit the worst. In fact, in Glasgow, I used the term ‘You might as well bomb us’, because we suffer from the sea levels rising, our fish stocks being depleted in warming oceans, our tourism sector because of coral bleaching, [and] drought.”

Palau’s chiefs had traditionally managed ocean resources through buls (moratoriums) on fishing to allow species to rejuvenate, and more recently had managed to bring bumphead parrotfish back from the point of extinction by placing a total ban on fishing the species.

While such choices could affect the livelihoods of fishermen and others, Whipps Jr said such calls had to be made before it was too late.

“I had the opportunity at Glasgow to represent the president of the Marshall Islands at the High Ambition Coalition. When I spoke to him before I left for Glasgow … he said, ‘This is our last hope, you need to make it clear that if we don’t turn this around, there is no hope for us, our islands are going under’.

“That was very important, because it really reminded us that no country should be allowed to disappear because of our choices, human choices – we’re talking about people and having the political will to do the right thing.”

While some people saw climate change and ocean biodiversity as separate issues, Pouponneau said there was a growing recognition of the links between the two and the need to avoid placing them in silos.

“The ocean is both a victim to the impacts of climate change, and here we can think of things like ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea level rise, many impacts that are causing damage to the ecosystems and to some extent collapse … but they’re also a source of optimism, and a source of hope.”

A special report on oceans from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had noted the ability of mangroves, coastal wetlands, and seagrasses to help curb the effects of climate change and absorb carbon, she said.

Clark said the window to limit global warming was fast closing, and whether politicians took action on issues like a high seas treaty with sufficient public pressure could determine whether humankind deviated from its path “to destroy the ecosystems”.

“We’re now starting to see that kind of mobilisation on climate [but] we don’t yet see it enough at a global level on biodiversity including in our marine areas.”

There is concern that Russia’s war in Ukraine could overshadow the talks and lead to negotiations “going to custard”, as Clark put it. But Whipps Jr said he was optimistic that countries could move forward and rely on their moral compass to do the right thing.

“There’s hope we can turn this ship around and we can head in the right direction, because if we don’t, our children really have no hope, and we don’t want to lose our culture.

“We don’t want to lose what is unique to us, and we don’t want our children to have to read about our islands or culture or our beautiful resources or diversity from textbooks. They should be able to see them with their own eyes, and that really is all of our responsibility, said Clark…. PACNEWS

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