The High Seas Treaty has been in the works for years, but disagreements persist over benefits-sharing, among other issues.
UN member states are squabbling over the terms of a treaty to protect the high seas, a rich and largely unexplored ecosystem that covers nearly half the planet.
After more than 15 years of informal and then formal talks, negotiators on Friday came to the end of another two weeks of talks, the third “final” session in less than a year.
The High Seas treaty would ensure governments meet their commitment to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, as agreed in Montreal in December.
But before the scheduled end of talks on Friday, longstanding disputes remained unresolved.
They include the procedure for creating marine protected areas, the model for environmental impact studies of planned high seas activities and the sharing of potential benefits of newly discovered marine resources.
Although more is known about the surface of Mars than the depths of the high seas, valuable resources are known to lie miles below the surface.
Hydrothermal vents – or fissures on the seafloor – are rich in minerals needed for the batteries essential in the renewable energy era, while marine genetic resources are considered valuable sources of information that could unlock the secrets of life.
Environmentalists have called for the treaty to establish ocean reserves to protect high seas ecosystems, which create half the oxygen humans breathe and limit global warming by absorbing much of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities .
The high seas are not under the jurisdiction of any country, as countries’ exclusive economic zones extend up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the coasts.
“Who owns the high seas is currently questionable,” Grenpeace campaigner Laura Meller told Al Jazeera. “The treaty is our greatest opportunity to put conservation and justice at the heart of how we care for our oceans after decades of mismanagement and exploitation.”
Developing countries lacking the resources to afford costly research have said they fear being left behind, while others profit from the commercialization of potential substances discovered in international waters.
Steve Widdicombe, a marine ecologist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, told Al Jazeera that researchers were “just beginning to look into the murky depths and understand what’s out there.”
Widdicombe called for caution, “as our ability to influence a system far away is currently greater than our evidence or knowledge of what exists there.”
In a short plenary session on Friday morning, the conference presidency urged delegates to be “as flexible as possible” in the “final push” that could stretch into the early hours of Saturday.
Observers hoped for a political boost from the Our Ocean conference that took place in Panama in parallel, where many government officials discussed the protection and sustainable use of the oceans.
If an agreement were reached, it was questionable whether the compromises made would result in a text robust enough to effectively protect the oceans.