World Oceans Day Comes at a Critical Time for High Seas

Isabella Lövin of Sweden addresses the General Assembly Hall during a special meeting for World Oceans Day.
Credit: Lauren Kubiak

As we celebrate World Oceans Day this year, world leaders, businesses, scientists, and NGOs are gathered in New York at the first ever United Nations Ocean Conference. Threats to the ocean—including acidification from excessive carbon emissions, pollution, and overexploitation—continue to mount, but at the Ocean Conference, there is strong evidence that political will is building to reverse the degradation of the ocean.

“The health of our oceans and seas requires us to put aside short-term national gain, to avoid long-term global catastrophe,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during the conference opening on Monday.

So far, in connection with the Conference, over 1000 countries, organizations, and stakeholders have made commitments to improve the health of the oceans. In sessions on sustainable fisheries, ocean acidification, and marine pollution, there is a steady and consistent drumbeat from nations—to save the oceans, nations must act together to share resources, intelligence, and build scientific and technological capacity.

One of the best opportunities to save the oceans is to protect the high seas, the area of ocean beyond national jurisdiction that makes up two-thirds of the ocean and nearly half the planet. When nations return to the UN next month to decide how to move forward in high seas protection, they will be making a decision critical for the future for the ocean.

High Seas Discussions Represent Biggest Opportunity to Protect Oceans

Today, the high seas lack modern management mechanisms to address critical components of biodiversity conservation, such as the establishment of fully protected marine reserves. To fill those governance gaps, nations have been engaged in discussions at the UN to develop a new treaty to conserve and sustainably use biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (BBNJ). Discussions continue next month, during which nations will decide whether to convene formal diplomatic negotiations to develop the text of the new treaty.

States agreeing to move forward and convene an intergovernmental conference in 2018 is vital, as this new treaty represents an unparalleled opportunity to conserve two-thirds of the ocean. Finalizing a treaty would be equivalent to a Paris Agreement for the ocean—a once in a generation opportunity to begin to reverse the degradation of our ocean.

At the Ocean Conference this week, countries including Argentina, Costa Rica, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, Ireland, Malta, Mexico, Palau, Spain, among others, have called for strong international provisions to protect the high seas. Their leadership is critical and we hope is an indication that next month’s discussions will be successful.

As world leaders today discuss how best to protect the ocean, I hope they recognize the high seas as our best opportunity to ensure a healthy future for our ocean. All of us depend on it.  

A large school of fish swims near Kingman Reef, an area in the Pacific where marine life enjoy the types of protections needed in areas of the high seas.
Credit: Lauren Kubiak

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