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‘Historic’ deal to protect high seas agreed by UN member states

Only about 1 percent of the high seas is currently protected.

UN member states have finally agreed on a text on the first international treaty to protect the high seas, a fragile and vital treasure that covers almost half of the planet.

After years of negotiations, negotiators from more than 100 countries finalized the UN treaty — a long-overdue move that environmental groups say will help reverse the loss of marine biodiversity and ensure sustainable development.

“The ship has reached shore,” announced conference chair Rena Lee at UN headquarters in New York shortly before 9:30 p.m. Saturday (02:30 GMT Sunday), to loud and sustained applause from delegates.

The legally binding pact to conserve and ensure the sustainable use of ocean biodiversity, debated for 15 years, was finally adopted after five rounds of lengthy UN-led negotiations.

The treaty is seen as a critical part of global efforts to bring 30 percent of the world’s land and sea under protection by the end of the decade, a goal known as “30 by 30” agreed in Montreal, Canada , in December last year.

The treaty will also require countries to conduct environmental impact assessments of proposed high seas activities.

Economic interests were a major sticking point in the latest round of negotiations, which began Feb. 20, with developing countries calling for a greater share of the “blue economy’s spoils,” including technology transfers.

An agreement to share the benefits of “marine genetic resources” used in industries such as biotechnology also remained a bone of contention until the end, causing talks to stall.

What are High Seas?

The high seas begin at the border of countries’ exclusive economic zones, extending up to 370 km (200 nautical miles) from the coasts. Beyond that point, the seas are not under the jurisdiction of any country.

Although the high seas make up more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans and almost half of the Earth’s surface, they have long attracted much less attention than coastal waters and a few iconic species.

Ocean ecosystems create half the oxygen humans breathe and limit global warming by absorbing much of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities. But they are threatened by climate change, pollution and overfishing.

Only about 1 percent of the high seas are currently protected.

‘Victory for multilateralism’

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the delegates, according to a spokesman, said the agreement was a “victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health now and in the future.”

“It is critical to addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” a UN statement said.

Greenpeace says 11 million square kilometers (4.2 million square miles) of ocean must be protected each year until 2030 to meet the target.

“Countries must formally approve and ratify the treaty as soon as possible for it to go into effect, then provide the fully protected ocean reserves our planet needs,” said Laura Meller, a Greenpeace campaigner who attended the talks.

“The clock is still ticking to deliver 30 by 30. We still have half a decade to go and we can’t be complacent.”