A vessel is detained for potential illegal fishing using drift nets by the US coast guard in the North Pacific Ocean. Photograph: US Coast Guard Photo/Alamy

World - ‘One of the most important talks no one has heard of’: why the high seas treaty matters

The pressure is building around critical negotiations that could, if successful, shield swathes of the world’s ocean

Almost two-thirds of the world’s ocean lies outside national boundaries. These are the “high seas”, where fragmented and loosely enforced rules have meant a vast portion of the planet, hundreds of miles from land, is often essentially lawless.

Because of this, the high seas are more susceptible than coastal seas to exploitation. Currently, all countries can navigate, fish (or overfish) and carry out scientific research on the high seas practically at will. Only 1.2% of it is protected, and the increasing reach of fishing and shipping vessels, the threat of deep-sea mining, and new activities, such as “bioprospecting” of marine species, mean they are being threatened like never before.

Yet, not only does a healthy ocean provide half of the oxygen we breathe, it represents 95% of the planet’s biosphere, soaks up carbon dioxide and is Earth’s largest carbon sink.

This week, delegates from 193 member states will begin the final talks at the UN headquarters in New York to conclude negotiations for what scientists have described as a “once in a lifetime” chance to at last protect the high seas.

Aimed at shielding huge swathes of the world’s ocean from exploitation, the talks – officially called the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, or BBNJ – are the fifth round of negotiations, which ended last August without agreement. The current round of talks began last week and will end on 3 March.

The pressure is on. Last month, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, weighed in with strong words, saying the ocean was on the “frontlines” of the war against nature, and calling on nations to stop squabbling and conclude the delayed negotiations.

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