An Insider’s View On Ocean

The treaty is meant to serve as a scaffold for future initiatives, and has the power to protect much of the ocean. Photograph by Philip Thurston / Getty

We thank Jeffrey J. Marlow, Assistant Professor of Biology at Boston University, once again; this time for an essay he just posted on the New Yorker’s website. The news in it is not new, but his take on it is:

The Inside Story of the U.N. High Seas Treaty

A new global agreement protects marine life in parts of the ocean that laws have been unable to reach.

The open ocean, which is home to millions of species and generates much of the oxygen we breathe, is a mostly lawless place. Nations have jurisdiction over waters near their coasts, but the high seas, which begin two hundred and thirty miles from shore, are a first-come, first-served domain: there’s little to stop someone from exploiting marine resources, whether plants and animals in the water or fossil fuels beneath the seafloor. Forty-three per cent of the planet’s surface is vulnerable to unregulated deep-sea drilling, overfishing, and bioprospecting.

For the past five years, under the auspices of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, nearly two hundred nations have been haggling over the best way to change that. They agreed that the marine life of the high seas needed legal protection, in the form of a treaty—but how, exactly, might that protection be provided? Between 2018 and 2023, negotiators converged on U.N. Headquarters in New York for six meetings that each lasted two grueling weeks, during which they worked their way through a litany of difficult questions. How should the high seas be studied, monitored, and protected? Who ought to profit from marine discoveries?

I joined the proceedings as a marine scientist working with the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (dosi), which advises policymakers on pressing scientific issues. We observers tried our best to decode complex legal principles, geopolitical subtexts, and an alphabet soup of acronyms; we held plastic speakers to our ears to hear translations of the talks. At times, we huddled with diplomats and explained our scientific methods; we spoke in favor of open data and advocated for scientists in developing countries, who deserve training and expertise as well as instruments and equipment. The negotiations reminded me of live footage from the deep-sea whale falls and methane seeps that I research: each moment could feel dull, but its contents were profound, and the entire landscape could change in the span of a brief daydream.

During the latest meeting, which began in late February, negotiators hoped to reach a framework agreement by Wednesday, March 1st. When March 2nd arrived without one, however, many participants grew worried. On Friday, Rena Lee, the Singaporean diplomat who serves as president of the conference, urged participants to carry on a little longer, even if that meant staying up all night. “We have a window of opportunity to seal the deal, and we mustn’t let this opportunity slip through our hands,” she said. If the week ended without a set text, some delegates might be unwilling or unable to come back for another try…

Read the whole essay here.

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