the ocean can they cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain much of its animal life, but you might not get that impression from the UN discussions in Montreal to save global biodiversity, and some delegates fear that marine protections severely diluted or removed entirely.
Although overfishing, global warming and acidification are considered an existential risk for what has been called “the lungs of the planet”, so far, there are only two mentions of the word “ocean” in the latest 10-page, 5,000-word working agreement at Cop15, not to mention specific demands for restrict fishingprotect coral reefs or stop deep sea mining.
In public the ocean, which represents 95 percent of the planet’s biosphereis not being completely ignored: delegates have approved a general draft on marine and coastal biodiversity, and there is hope that the 30×30 commitment to protect 30 percent of the Earth by 2030 it will also include the ocean. Privately, participants in the working groups, the closed-door sessions where details are worked out, say several countries are acting obstructively, with China, Russia, Iceland and Argentina among those accused of hesitating in commit to specific restrictions.
“We are concerned that these countries are trying to reduce this to, say, 10 percent,” says Simon Cripps, executive director of marine conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cop15 participant. “We’re already sitting on a 7 percent protection, of which 3.5 percent is managed somehow effectively, and look: the sharks are taking off, the fisheries are massively overfished, you’ve got coral reefs on the edge. . Clearly, a 10 percent goal is not working.”
Because negotiations work on a consensus basis, individual countries and coalitions can effectively veto things they don’t like.
One of the perceived obstacles is fishing. china keeps the world’s largest distant fishing fleet, operating 17,000 industrial trawlers that span the globe and are concentrated along the borders of other countries’ jurisdictions, absorbing large quantities of fish and squid, for example, near the Galapagos. So when the word “fishing” was removed from the last working paper in the section on ending perverse environmental subsidies, it didn’t surprise many; Missing the specific word, Cripps explains, was a way to prevent countries from vetoing the entire section and make at least gradual progress.
Another pitfall is money. Developing countries are wary of restrictions unless more money is promised to help pay for them. On Tuesday night, Brazil led a group of developing countries that left a finance meetingprotesting because the donor countries refused to create a new fund for biodiversity.
Those richer countries argue that Brazil, as well as China, India and other big countries whose economies have exploded, should also start pitching in to pay for biodiversity.
A hugely important marine question is simply not on the table at all, namely whether the 30% target will be local or global: Will individual countries be asked to protect 30% of their own coastal areas, or is it a vaguer goal to protect 30%? percent of the ocean, somewhere else? “From the beginning, they’ve been saying it’s a global goal,” says Cripps.
This means that even if the 30×30 were agreed, it might not help marine biodiversity at all because of another unresolved problem: the high seas. Most of the ocean is outside national jurisdiction and is practically lawless. Countries only have sovereign authority up to 200 nautical miles from their coast; everything beyond is considered high seas, ruled by no one. A separate set of UN negotiations to agree a high seas treaty has been underway for years, but the last round of talks ended in failure. They will meet again in March 2023 to try again.
Without that treaty, any agreement made in Montreal to protect the ocean offshore is legally meaningless, since there would be no one to enforce the rules. There are regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that set quotas to prevent overfishing of species, such as tuna, on the high seas, but their enforcement powers are limited in scope and are Strongly influenced for commercial fishing. Countries could also use the parallel negotiations as an excuse not to act, arguing that protecting the ocean is not a Cop15 issue at all.
Some nations have been moving closer to home, with Costa Rica, France and the UK proposing ambitious limits off their own coasts, although almost all of the UK’s marine protected areas still allow bottom trawling.
“The designation is not protection,” says Steve Widdicombe, scientific director of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “You can assign a particular label or a piece of ocean and say, ‘Oh, it’s a marine protected area, it’s a site of special scientific interest, it’s a nature reserve,’ or whatever. Well, there’s still bottom trawling in there, you’re still pumping sewage into it.”
“Not all pieces of the sea are the same as the others,” he adds. “We can choose 30 percent of the open ocean, away from all consumers; that’s absolutely fine, accessible and easy to do. But it doesn’t help any coral. It does not help the mangroves. It doesn’t help seagrass.”
Cripps raises the possibility that even if the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) fails to reach an agreement, the ocean could soon be 30 percent protected in some form. “You have to ask: if CBD doesn’t get consensus, are we going to get 30×30 anyway?” he says.
But he points out that this is business as usual, with nothing changing in terms of overfishing, deep-sea mining, acidification, microplastics or any of the other threats facing the beleaguered ocean.
“It should be so much easier [to protect 30 percent of the ocean] than the earth, that is the enigma and the paradox here,” National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala said at the conference. “Thirty percent is not the goal: it is a milestone. Studies show that we need something closer to the middle of the ocean if we are to avoid the collapse of our life support system during our lifetimes. But it’s in the unprotected 70 percent where our use of resources really needs to be more responsible, to allow that 30 percent to help regenerate the rest of the ocean.”
Conservationist Sol Kaho’ohalahala, a seventh-generation Hawaiian, agreed. “In a Native Hawaiian perspective, it’s almost saying that only 30 percent of our ancestors are important and that the other 70 percent, we may have to put them aside.”