Along with our other environmental sins, we are fishing the oceans dry. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over a third of global fisheries have been fished beyond sustainable limits and almost two-thirds are being fished to their limits. Sharks and rays have declined by over 70 percent. Commenting on the latter, Simon Fraser marine biologist Nathan Pacoureau observed, “There is a very small window to save these iconic creatures.”
Marine animals overall—mammals, birds, reptiles and fish—have declined by half. And the damage increases with climate change. As the oceans warm, coral reefs, home of a quarter of all marine species, are threatened with extinction.
We pollute the ocean with noise, disrupting the lives of dolphins and whales and we pollute it with plastic which has affected almost every species group in the ocean. Various nations are looking to the ocean for the mining of valuable minerals, a practice that will add more noise while damaging the sea bed and destroy ecosystems. These deep sea ecosystems include many species yet unknown.
All this takes place in essentially a free-for-all. According to Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The current structure of managing human activities on high seas is not a whole lot more rigorous than the Wild West.”
But it seems we are starting to come to our senses. After decades of planning and negotiations, members of the United Nations have agreed on an international treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters.
The proposed treaty has four major objectives:
First, it is intended to pave the way to establish large-scale marine protected areas. In practice this would mean that in about 30 percent of the world’s oceans, activities such as commercial fishing and oil and gas drilling could be prohibited or limited. This target is part of a broader land and marine conservation U.N.-led commitment known as 30×30.
Second, the treaty will regulate countries and companies who can access and benefit sharing from the commercialization of “marine genetic resources,” resources that could be useful for developing pharmaceuticals or cosmetics.
Third, the treaty will make research conducted in international waters more accessible and inclusive, especially for developing countries.
And fourth is setting global standards for environmental impact assessments on commercial activities in the ocean. These will consider cumulative impacts resulting from different activities.
We have a ways to go yet, however. Nations still need to ratify the treaty, a step that often requires legislative approval. But this first step is a very big deal.
The importance of protecting the oceans cannot be overstated. They are essential to life on Earth. Covering over 70 percent of the planet’s surface, they regulate its climate and supply much of its oxygen. They have absorbed over 90 percent of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s. All this in addition to their huge role in contributing to biodiversity including, of course, much of our food supply.
We really do need to take better care of them. We can’t afford a Wild West.