Fisherman doing their activities at Sadeng fisheries port, Gunung Kidul regency, Yogyakarta
Net profit: fishermen at work in an Indonesian port © Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Despite years of work at the UN, agreement among nations on a comprehensive treaty to protect the world’s oceans from unsustainable exploitation remains elusive.

In mid-August, delegates gathered in New York to resume work on a UN conservation treaty for the high seas — the two-thirds of the world’s waters that are not within national jurisdictions. Among other objectives, the treaty would have created so-called marine protected areas, where human activity would be tightly restricted, as a means of preserving biodiversity and warding off extinctions. But, after two weeks of talks, the meeting ended on August 26 without an accord.

“Many, myself included, are understandably disappointed that we did not manage to complete our work in August,” says Rena Lee, special envoy for Singapore’s foreign affairs ministry and ambassador for the oceans and law of the sea issues. “We needed a little more time.” She adds that work on the treaty will resume in 2023.

There are 19 organisations that have some governance role concerning oceans, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit that campaigns on conservation. Most are regional, although some, such as the International Whaling Commission, have global reach. What all these organisations lack, however, is a comprehensive mandate to manage and conserve ecosystems on the high seas, Pew says.

A fisherman works on a boat by the sea in the Philippines © Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg

“It was ambitious to try to complete the [high seas] treaty in that two-week session,” says Liz Karan, director of ocean governance at Pew. “The negotiations came really close. I think it made it that much more disappointing when it did not come together.”

The EU quickly blamed China and Russia for the talks breaking down. “Despite all efforts, the international community has failed to reach the finish line, with multilateral efforts often held back by Russia and China determined to derail the negotiations,” the European Commission said.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks was how to share the profits from marine genetic resources.

Gathering genetic data from ocean creatures has become big business. Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies are exploring the potential of novel compounds derived from marine life. Materials and structural design businesses are also attracted to deep-sea organisms that resist predation, crushing pressures, and extremes of heat and cold. But the expeditions required to harvest this information are costly, with the result that developing nations miss out — even though the high seas are, in effect, a global commons.

A similar problem involves the world’s small island developing states, or Sids, a grouping of 38 UN member countries mostly situated in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Yoshitaka Ota, director of the Ocean Nexus project at the University of Washington, has been studying ocean governance and how oceans are under threat from climate change. He says that, as climate change hits, fish stocks that lie within some countries’ waters may move further out to sea, where the fishing fleets of wealthier countries can outcompete those of the Sids.

“Social equity must be the centre of ocean governance,” Ota says. He co-authored a paper this year arguing that “ocean governance continues to suffer from a lack of effective coordinating mechanisms” and that this allows powerful countries or companies to maintain their dominance.

Despite the self-interest of many in keeping the oceans free of regulation, some commercial interests are pushing for the UN’s treaty. These include food suppliers and retailers, such as the alliance of UK supermarkets and seafood businesses which has called for governments “to accelerate action” on the treaty. “Our businesses want to source from healthy and sustainable fisheries, which are intrinsically linked to a healthy marine ecosystem,” they said.

It may be some time before they get their wish, though. There is real concern that momentum for the treaty could slow, Karan says, especially as “other crises like the war in Ukraine” threaten to hinder negotiations.

But work to protect the oceans goes on elsewhere. In December, countries will meet in Montreal for a UN biological diversity summit. One of the goals of this gathering is to sign up countries to conserve at least 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030. If that commitment is made, it will bode well for concluding the high seas treaty next year, observers say.

While governments are working at the UN, the financial sector is devising new ways to serve the “blue economy”.

In 2018, the Seychelles became the first country to raise funds in the bond market specifically to finance ocean projects. The deal raised $15mn to protect dolphins and other marine life through a 10-year “blue bond” modelled on green-labelled debt. The country received help in designing the bond from the World Bank, which pioneered the use of green bonds.

Multilateral development banks, which can help fund projects as well as shoulder some risk, have been crucial to financing climate change projects. But family foundations and other philanthropic organisations are also working on ocean conservation.

Pew has partnered with the Minderoo Foundation and others to form the Blue Nature Alliance, which helps to fund conservation projects from the Caribbean to Antarctica. The organisation acts as a co-investor in projects alongside governments, other sources of public money, and philanthropic outfits.

Such financing structures are important because the oceans themselves may be poor investments from a purely profit-seeking perspective, according to Ota.

“The oceans don’t really have much return,” he says. “You protect the oceans, you spend money to protect an area. [But] it does not really return anything. There is no profit basically apart from beautiful oceans and ecosystems.”

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