The “high seas”, or international waters, account for two-thirds of Earth’s oceans and provide 90% of the habitat for life. They also are the bedrock of up to $16 billion worth of fishing every year. And yet, when it comes to their conservation, surprisingly little is in the realm of the formal. To be sure, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regulates activity in international waters, including sea-bed mining and cable laying while 20-odd organisations regulate shipping as also fishing, whaling and local conservation.
This year, in September, members of the United Nations will be meeting in New York to arrive at a global accord on conservation of the oceans, quite like they did at Paris on climate change (though the US, under Donald Trump, pulled out later). The treaty will, apart from establishing safeguards for the ocean, lay down rules on resource-sharing and commercial activity, including mining, research, etc. A major concern of the negotiations will agreement on creation of marine protected areas (MPAs)—regions that are off-limits to at least specified commercial activity, if not all. MPAs can’t ward off the effects plastic dumping in oceans, or the impact of climate change on oceans (such as increasing acidity, temperatures, etc), but they can give marine populations a protected area.
As per a Nature report, there is scientific consensus that nearly 30% of the global ocean needs to be “cordoned off” to stave off mass extinction of marine populations—on paper, 7% is protected while the UN aims for 10% by 2020, but in reality, just 2% of the ocean and 0.5% of international waters are completely no-go areas today. Thus, the challenge before the New York meet will be to get countries to make ambitious commitments on creation of MPAs. This will mean large-scale giving up on exploration of oceanic resources for human needs before ways are found to do this sustainably.
The other challenge will be to get the treaty, along with punitive provisions, enforced. While monitoring of violations is easy with satellite technology, prosecution of regulatory breaches will be a political issue and eventually depend on the will of each nation to work towards a consensus.