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Talks fail to clinch global ocean treaty

Diplomats suspended talks after they could not agree on a proposed treaty to protect marine species and minerals in high seas covering 43% of Earth.

Sunset on the Arctic horizon as scientists aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter head south in the Chukchi Sea
Sunset on the Arctic horizon as scientists aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter head south in the Chukchi Sea (AN/NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Diplomats suspended two weeks of talks after they were unable to reach agreement on how to move forward with a proposed legally binding treaty that would protect marine species and minerals in the high seas covering 43% of Earth's surface.

After years of effort, nations' delegates again declared they were at an impasse as the intergovernmental conference — the fifth such round of talks — ended on Saturday. Proponents of the treaty had hoped to clinch a deal during the second half of August that would establish rules for protecting the world's marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Talks are now set to resume next year.

No universal law exists that protects that immense biodiversity against commercial activities on international waters that are beyond the 200 nautical mile (370 kilometer) jurisdiction of coastal nations. Exclusive economic zones generally reach 200 nautical miles from baselines or the continental shelf.

Advocates say it is needed to protect depleted fish stocks from illegal and under-regulated fishing and to conserve deep seabed minerals and genomes that are hunted by businesses for new products.

“Failure to deliver a treaty at these talks jeopardizes the livelihoods and food security of billions of people around the world," said Laura Meller, who leads Greenpeace's Protect the Oceans campaign. "Time has run out. Further delay means ocean destruction. We are sad and disappointed. While countries continue to talk, the oceans and all those who rely on them will suffer.”

Meller said delegates from the Pacific islands and the Caribbean pushed hard for the treaty, as wealthy countries like the United States "moved too slowly to find compromises" and Russia became "a key blocker in negotiations" that would not compromise with the European Union or with other nations.

Unless a special emergency session is called to hold another round of talks before the end of this year, proponents said, it will hard to fulfill environmentalists' goal of globally protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, which is a target scientists say is needed to protect species and help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

At the close of talks, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Monica Medina expressed disappointment but urged delegates not to give up hope.

"We have come a long way over the last two weeks," she said. "But unfortunately time ran out on us. And as many others have said: We need to — we must preserve — the progress that we have made. We cannot let the tides and currents push us back. We must keep going."

The proposed treaty is based on a set of principles that says the "polluter pays," nations share a "common heritage," and there should be "equity" or the "fair and equitable sharing of benefits," according to a 56-page draft version distributed at the U.N.-hosted intergovernmental conference in July.

It also calls for using the best available science and relevant traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local communities to build up "ecosystem resilience to the adverse effects of climate change and ocean acidification and restores ecosystem integrity."

Turning 'nobody's waters' to 'everybody's waters'

The talks were held under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which has 168 nations that take part in it including China and Russia, but not the United States, the only major nation that does not belong. The treaty aims to extend UNCLOS' legal framework by requiring formal evaluations of how fish stocks, marine genetics and other high seas resources should be globally administered, conserved and sustained.

UNCLOS took effect in 1994, creating three organizations to manage ocean resources: Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf based in the U.N.'s headquarters at New York; International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany; and International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica.

Another extension to UNCLOS, the U.N.'s Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement, entered into force in 2001. That treaty, which covers species that migrate among or are found in more than one exclusive economic zone, has 92 participating nations, including Russia and the United States; China signed on but never ratified it.

The U.N. General Assembly agreed in December 2017 on the need for an intergovernmental conference to hammer out a high seas treaty. Article 192 of UNCLOS says nations "have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment."

Open oceans face mounting commercial pressures, however, in the absence of any effective or coordinated system of global governance to regulate areas beyond the control of any one country.

Negotiations on the proposed treaty have focused on how to manage geographical areas, including possible marine protected areas; how to provide for access to marine genetic resources and the transfer of marine technology; and how to conduct environmental impact assessments in international waters.

Since the high seas don't "belong" to anyone "they have been treated recklessly with impunity," said Marco Lambertini, director general of Swiss-based WWF International. "We need a common governance mechanism for our ocean to ensure that nobody's waters become everybody's waters — and everyone's responsibility."