It is a sobering fact to consider that although more than two thirds of the Earth is covered by water, 80 per cent of the planet’s oceans remain unseen by human eyes.
These vast stretches of deep water are also essential to our survival as a species. They produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, affect the planet’s climate and are teeming with life, some of it endangered from global warming, overfishing, pollution and other human activity.
That is why the UN High Seas Treaty agreed on by delegates from more than 100 countries working through the night in New York on Saturday is such a turning point. It has taken more than a decade for member states to agree on a way to protect and preserve those parts of the oceans that lie outside national boundaries.
"The ship has reached the shore," UN conference president Rena Lee said, as the text of the deal was agreed. There has also been a cautious welcome from environmental groups, such as the High Seas Alliance that described the treaty as “a key tool to help deliver the recently agreed Kunming-Montreal target of at least 30 per cent protection of the world’s ocean by 2030 … the minimum level of protection scientists warn is necessary to ensure a healthy ocean”.
The UN agreement has come not a moment too soon. A 2008 study identified more than 400 so-called dead zones in the world’s oceans – areas of hypoxic water incapable of sustaining life. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year and the UN warns that without a change in direction, more than half of the world’s marine species could be on the verge of extinction by 2100.
It may just be that this treaty is the change of direction the planet needs. That it has arrived in the year of Cop28 is serendipitous, too. Despite it being a long time in the making, the UN treaty shows what can be done when diplomacy is entered into in good faith, with a willingness to compromise and an ability to see where other parties are coming from.
Cop28 in the UAE later this year will take on a similar approach, but aiming to reach consensus won't be easy, particularly as the interests of the developed and developing worlds often seem to be so divergent. Nevertheless, the Emirates is an apt forum to have these debates, particularly as the country is walking the walk when it comes to protecting its own environment.
The news at the weekend that sharks and rays threatened by extinction in Emirati waters are expected to be added to a protected list this year, for example, is to be welcomed. UAE rules will complement a new Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, restricting trade to only those fish caught legally and sustainably.
The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment has already banned fishing of any Cites-listed sharks and rays, and pleasure boats are also prohibited from shark fishing.
One day, humans may embark on the Herculean task of mapping our planet’s oceans and exploring their unknown depths, uncovering new species and natural phenomena that could radically change our understanding of life on Earth. For this to happen, countries must work together to preserve these mysterious waters and the life within them, not only for the sake of discovery but for our existence as a species. The treaty reached in New York may just be a momentous step in the right direction.