UN urges ambitious action to protect oceans

World leaders must do more to protect the oceans, a major United Nations conference concluded Friday, aiming for a new treaty to protect the high seas.

“Greater ambition is needed at all levels to address the plight of the ocean,” the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon said in its final statement.

The meeting in the Portuguese capital — attended by government officials, experts and advocates from 140 countries — is not a forum for negotiations.

But it sets the agenda for final international negotiations in August on a treaty to protect the high seas — those international waters beyond national jurisdiction.

“The loss of biodiversity, the degradation of ocean health, the way the climate crisis is unfolding… all have a common cause, which is… human behavior, our addiction to oil and gas, and all this must be addressed,” Peter Thomson, the UN’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, told AFP.

The oceans produce half the oxygen we breathe, regulate the weather and provide the single largest source of protein for humanity.

They also absorb a quarter of CO2 pollution and 90 percent of excess heat from global warming, thus playing a key role in protecting life on Earth.

But they are being pushed to the brink by human activities.

Seawater has become acidic, threatening aquatic food chains and the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon. Global warming has caused massive sea heat waves that are killing coral reefs and expanding oxygen-deprived dead zones.

Humans have fished certain marine species to extinction and used the world’s waters as a dumping ground.

– Patchwork of Agreements –

Today, a patchwork of agreements and regulatory bodies governs shipping, fishing and seabed mining.

Thomson said he was “very confident” that national governments could agree a “strong but workable” high seas treaty in August.

Tiago Pitta e Cunha, head of the Portuguese foundation Oceano Azul (Blue Ocean) said: “The pressure has increased a lot on the least interested countries to create an effective mechanism to protect the high seas.”

Laura Meller from Greenpeace called for more action.

“We know that if words could save the oceans, then they would not be on the brink of collapse,” he told AFP.

“So in August, when governments meet at the United Nations, they really need to finalize a strong global ocean treaty.”

Efforts to protect the oceans will then continue at two key summits later this year — the UN climate talks in November and the UN biodiversity negotiations in December.

– Overfishing, Mining, Plastic –

At the heart of the draft UN biodiversity treaty is a plan to designate 30 percent of land and oceans as protected zones by 2030.

Currently, less than eight percent of the oceans are protected.

Some new, protected marine areas could be declared off-limits to fishing, mining, drilling or other extractive activities, which scientists say disrupt fragile seabed ecosystems.

Making matters worse is a never-ending flood of pollution, including one garbage truckload of plastic every minute, the United Nations says.

“The ocean is not a garbage dump,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday. “It’s not a source of infinite loot. It’s a fragile system that we all depend on.”

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