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    Friday, March 31, 2023

    Landmark deal for high seas treaty

    Negotiators of a United Nations treaty intended to preserve the biodiversity of life in Earth’s oceans have laid down their pens on a deal to submit for UN approval. It only took 20 years.

    Let it not be another two decades before the UN approves the treaty and sends it to member nations to ratify it. And let it not be the U.S. Senate that stalls or even ignores the ratification, as has happened with past treaties. This deal is too important, and the goal it is designed to support is only seven years away: 2030 is the year by which the recent UN biodiversity summit, COP 15, pledged to protect almost a third of the planet’s land and oceans to sustain marine life.

    The high seas treaty, if adopted and ratified, will have high impact on ocean life, carbon emissions reduction, and human affairs. Its potential for eastern Connecticut is enormous.

    Although the “ocean” at our door is really an estuary -- Long Island Sound -- it is a channel to the high seas. The Sound is vital to U.S. Naval submarine deployment; sub construction; the Dominion nuclear power plant that cools itself with sea water and discharges heated water; the developing wind power industry; and marine commerce, including fishing and transportation. The treaty’s primary purpose is to protect diverse ocean species so -- most directly of all -- it would benefit such creatures as alewife herring, salmon, cod, lobsters and scallops that begin their life cycles in our streams and salt marshes, as well as deep sea denizens such as the mighty but endangered whales.

    Representatives from more than 190 countries, including environmental advocates, finished work on the text last weekend. Once the United Nations approves the language, it is expected to take years for member states to ratify the treaty. The United States, in particular, is notoriously slow to act on treaties, and often has opted for a unilateral course of action.

    The treaty’s provisions will apply outside the territorial limits of nations bordering oceans, which comprises two-thirds of the surface. Under the deal, nations can propose establishing marine protection areas from pollution, over-fishing, shipping and deep-sea mining.

    It is in every human’s best interest that the treaty move forward. Currently only 1.2 percent of the planet’s ocean vastness has official protection for the diverse species essential to the balance of life on Earth, including food chains and carbon absorption.

    There is deep irony in the fact that while humans have been reaching farther into space and deeper under Earth’s oceans, we have not fully come to terms with repairing the damage. Planetary climate dangers are challenging our priorities. The high seas treaty will allow nations, including those without space programs, to preserve and explore ocean frontiers.

    Environmentalists who worked on the high seas deal say the enormity of the oceans make them humans’ “biggest ally in the fight against climate change.” But capturing carbon emissions requires abundant marine life. Ensuring that requires international commitment and cooperation.

    Current and future generations in eastern Connecticut will see firsthand the results of integrating ocean biodiversity goals into the ways we establish wind power, sustain nuclear power, design and deploy submarines and operate the deepwater port of New London. The region has taken a major step toward influencing ocean biodiversity research with the recent launch of the National Estuarine Research Reserve, ending Connecticut’s status as one of only two coastal states without a NERR.

    Enforcement will be the next challenge. It took Connecticut and New York years in federal court to resolve their dispute over dredging disposal in Long Island Sound. Interstate commerce is nothing compared to the claims of international military and commercial interests eager to “own” certain areas or mine for minerals under the ocean. The treaty attempts to address competition with a provision for rich and poor nations both to profit from deep-sea scientific discoveries.

    All legal and political wrangles pale besides the consequences if the ocean becomes too warm and acidic for sea creatures to thrive. But the capacity of the ocean to renew and restore itself can help save the planet for humans, if nations act.

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