Watered Down: Why COP15 Negotiators Barely Mention the Ocean

Jhe ocean may cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and contain much of its animal life, but you might not get that impression of the UN talks in Montreal to save global biodiversity. Some delegates fear that marine protections will be severely weakened or completely abandoned.

Although overfishing, global warming and acidification are considered an existential risk to 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 labor agreement. at COP15. There are no specific demands to reduce fishing, protect coral reefs or stop deep sea mining.

In public, the ocean, which represents 95% of the planet’s biosphere, is not totally ignored: delegates approved a general project on marine and coastal biodiversity, and it remains to be hoped that the 30×30 commitment of protecting 30% of the Earth by 2030 also includes the ocean. Privately, participants in the working groups – the closed sessions where details are discussed – say several countries are acting obstructively, with China, Russia, Iceland and Argentina among those accused of being reluctant to commit to specific restrictions.

“We’re concerned that these countries are trying to reduce that to, say, 10%,” says Simon Cripps, executive director of marine conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society and a Cop15 attendee. “We are already sitting at 7% protection, with 3.5% effectively managed, and look – sharks are breaking up, fisheries are massively overfished, you have coral reefs on the verge. It is therefore clear that a 10% target does not work.

Since the negotiations work on a consensual basis, countries and coalitions can effectively veto things they don’t like.

One of the perceived barriers is fishing. China maintains the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet, operating 17,000 industrial trawlers that fan the globe and cluster along the borders of other countries’ jurisdictions, sucking in large quantities of fish and squid, for example near Galapagos. So when the word “fishing” was dropped from the last working paper in the section on ending perverse environmental subsidies, it came as no surprise to many: Cripps explains that the loss of the specific word was a way to prevent countries from vetoing the whole section. , and make at least incremental progress.

Another stumbling block is money. Developing countries are wary of restrictions if there are no more pledges of money to help pay them. On Tuesday night, Brazil led a group of developing countries that walked out of a finance meeting, protesting donor countries’ refusal to set up a new biodiversity fund. These wealthier countries argue that Brazil – along with China, India and other big countries with booming economies – should also start helping pay for biodiversity.

An extremely important marine question is simply not on the table, 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 there a more vague goal of protecting 30%% of the ocean elsewhere? “From the beginning, they’ve been saying this is a global target,” Cripps says.

This means that even if 30×30 were agreed, it might not help marine biodiversity at all because of another unresolved issue: the high seas. Most of the ocean is outside national jurisdiction and is indeed anarchic. Countries only have sovereign authority up to 200 nautical miles from their coast; anything beyond that is considered the high seas, ruled by no one. A separate round of UN negotiations have been underway for years to agree a treaty on the high seas, but the latest round of talks ended in failure. They reunite again in March 2023 to try again.

Without this treaty, any agreement reached in Montreal to protect the ocean on the high seas makes no legal sense, because there would be no one to enforce the rules. There are Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), which set quotas to prevent overfishing of species such as tuna on the high seas, but their enforcement powers are limited and heavily influenced by commercial fishing. Countries could also use the parallel negotiations as an excuse not to act, arguing that protecting the ocean is not COP15’s business at all.

A few nations have advanced closer to home, with Costa Rica, France and the UK proposing ambitious limits off their own coasts – although nearly all UK marine protected areas still allow bottom trawling .

“Designation is not protection,” says Steve Widdicombe, science director of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “You can give a particular label or a piece of ocean and say, ‘Oh, this is a Marine Protected Area, this is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, this is a Nature Reserve’ or whatever. else. Well, you still have bottom trawling in there, you still pump sewage in there.

“Not all pieces of sea are the same as all other pieces of sea,” he adds. “We can choose 30% of the ocean open, away from any consumers – it’s totally fine, accessible and easy to do. But that doesn’t help any coral. It does not help the mangroves. This does not help the herbaria.

Cripps raises the possibility that even if the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) fails to reach an agreement, the ocean could already soon be 30% protected in some form. “You have to ask – if CBD doesn’t get consensus, are we still going to get 30×30?” he says.

But he stresses that means business as usual – nothing changes in terms of overfishing, deep-sea mining, acidification, microplastics or any other threat to the beleaguered ocean.

“It should be much easier [to protect 30% of the ocean] than the earth – that’s the enigma and the paradox here,” National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala said during the conference. “Thirty percent is not the goal: it’s a milestone. Studies show that we need something closer to half the ocean if we are to prevent our life support system from collapsing in our lifetime. But it’s the unprotected 70% where our use of resources really needs to be more responsible, to let that 30% help regenerate the rest of the ocean.

Conservationist Sol Kaho’ohalahala, a seventh-generation Hawaiian, agreed. “From a Native Hawaiian perspective, that’s almost like saying that only 30% of our ancestors are significant and the other 70% we might just have to put aside.”

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