The ocean needs more from us
By Gladys Martínez
For decades, the ocean has protected us from the impacts of climate change, absorbing 90 percent of the excess heat produced by global warming. It’s given us food and the genetic resources we use to produce life-saving drugs. As if that weren’t enough, it’s enabled millions of families to thrive in an economy based on its bounty.
Despite its importance, the ocean remains unprotected in large part; no country governs the high seas, international waters that comprise 64 percent of the ocean’s total surface area. Management measures have given rise to a patchwork of uncoordinated protections.
But efforts to care more for our ocean are gaining steam. Negotiations are underway for an international legally binding treaty that seeks to protect life in the high seas. I’ve been involved in the negotiations since they began. AIDA is a member of the High Seas Alliance, which is actively participating in the process; we are also the only Latin American organization represented at the meetings.
Last month I participated in the third meeting of the United Nations Preparatory Committee, which is developing elements of a draft text for a treaty under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
During that meeting, government representatives from throughout the region actively expressed the need for a strong treaty. The next meeting, July 10-21, is expected to develop recommendations that will hopefully lead to an Intergovernmental Conference to negotiate the treaty’s content.
Among other things, the treaty will support the creation and management of Marine Protected Areas, regions of the high seas that will be conserved to help protect the rich biodiversity of our oceans.
Protection at a high cost
In addition to absorbing a large part of the planet’s excess heat, the ocean absorbs nearly 30 percent of all greenhouse gases. But this protective role comes with serious consequences.
By interacting with and absorbing pollutants such as carbon dioxide, the ocean suffers from acidification—a phenomenon that reduces levels of calcium, an element necessary for the formation of shells—and loss of oxygen, essential for life under the sea.
These impacts consequently affect the food supply and employment in the fishing and tourism industries.
In light of the Paris Climate Agreement, and of the negotiation of this new treaty for the high seas, governments around the world can and must do more to protect marine ecosystems from the impacts of climate change.
Marine Protected Areas
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has called on governments to protect 30 percent of the ocean through such conservation measures as the establishment of Marine Protected Areas.
Two years ago, one of the smallest countries on the planet, Palau, took a big step toward realizing this goal.
Recognizing the benefits of a fully protected marine reserve, the North Pacific island nation designated 80 percent of its marine territory (an area the size of Spain) as a reserve in which trawling, mining, and other harmful extractive activities are forbidden.
Palau’s decision protects the nearly 1,300 marine species and 700 varieties of coral that call this small corner of the world home.
In Latin America, countries such as Chile, Ecuador, and Costa Rica have followed Palau’s example by safeguarding waters within their national territories. While their intentions are noble, they should also include the high seas.
Building on the momentum of marine conservation around the world, the high seas treaty must be developed, and our oceans better protected.
In the ten-plus years I’ve worked as an environmental attorney, I have learned a valuable lesson: all of the life that surrounds us comes from the ocean.
It’s time to care for it as well as it cares for us.