UN member states have reached agreement on the first international treaty to protect the high seas following years of talks, a step that environmental groups say will help reverse marine biodiversity losses and ensure sustainable development.
“The ship has reached the shore,” conference chair Rena Lee announced at the UN headquarters in New York on Saturday night, drawing loud and lengthy applause from delegates.
The announcement came at the end of the third so-called final negotiating session in less than a year, and more than 15 years of discussions, including four years of formal talks, on the long-awaited pact.
The treaty is seen as essential to conserving 30 per cent of the world's land and ocean by 2030, as agreed by world governments in a historic accord signed in Montreal last year.
The exact wording of the text was not immediately released but activists hailed it as a breakthrough moment for the protection of biodiversity.
“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” said Laura Meller of the Greenpeace environmental group.
The final text of the treaty, agreed up on after two weeks of intense talks, including a marathon overnight session into Saturday, cannot now be significantly altered.
“There will be no reopening or discussions of substance,” Ms Lee told negotiators.
The agreement will be formally adopted once it has been vetted by lawyers and translated into the United Nations' six official languages, she said.
Ms Meller called for countries to formally adopt the treaty and ratify it as quickly as possible to bring it into force, “and then deliver the fully protected ocean sanctuaries our planet needs”.
“The clock is still ticking to deliver 30 by 30. We have half a decade left, and we can't be complacent,” she said.
The high seas begin at the border of countries' exclusive economic zones, which extend up to 200 nautical miles, 370km, from coastlines, and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of no country.
Even though the high seas comprise more than 60 per cent of the world's oceans and about half the planet's surface, they have long drawn far less attention than coastal waters and a few well known 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 one per cent of the high seas are currently protected.
When the new treaty comes into force it will allow the creation of marine protected areas in these international waters.
“High seas marine protected areas can play a critical role in building resilience to the impact of climate change,” said Liz Karan of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which called the agreement a “momentous achievement”.
The treaty will also oblige countries to conduct environmental impact assessments of proposed activities on the high seas.
A highly sensitive chapter on the sharing of potential benefits of newly discovered marine resources was one of the focal points of tensions that was finally overcome in the final hours of negotiation.
Developing countries, without the means to afford costly research, had fought not to be excluded from the expected windfall from the commercialisation of substances discovered in the international waters.
Eventual profits are likely from the pharmaceutical, chemical or cosmetic use of newly discovered marine substances that belong to no one.
As in other international forums, notably climate negotiations, the debate ended up being a question of ensuring equity between the poorer global South and richer North, observers noted.
In a move seen as an attempt to build trust between rich and poor countries, the EU pledged $42 million in New York to enable the ratification of the treaty and its early implementation.
The EU also announced $860 million for research, monitoring and conservation of oceans in 2023 at the Our Ocean conference in Panama that ended Friday. Panama said a total of $19 billion was pledged by countries.
In 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on nations to establish a high seas treaty.
It originally planned four negotiating sessions but had to pass two resolutions to ensure two additional sessions.
“We can now finally move from talk to real change at sea,” Ms Meller said.
Greenpeace says 11 million square kilometres of ocean needs to be put under protection every year to meet the 30 by 30 target.
With reporting from agencies