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Home SCIENCE It is time to protect our high seas - Nautilus

It is time to protect our high seas – Nautilus

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Lalso into the Pacific Ocean from outer space and appears to occupy most of the globe. That’s how vast it is.

Go back down and get on a sailboat, this time in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Weeks from any coast, it could still be closer to the International Space Station than to land.

The high seas cover half of the Earth’s surface and make up about two-thirds of the world’s oceans. They are beyond any national jurisdiction because they extend beyond the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone of any coastal nation.

They don’t belong to anyone. Which means no one is looking out for them.

Without protection, this marine desert is open to exploitation for commercial purposes. It’s been open season offshore for far too long, and they’re feeling it.

It’s hard to understand how humans can destroy something so powerful.

If you’ve never had direct experience on the high seas, it’s hard to understand just how huge they are and how important they are to the well-being of our planet.

It is also difficult to understand how something so powerful can be so vulnerable to human impacts.

Life on our planet depends on healthy oceans. They create the oxygen we breathe, absorb the carbon dioxide we generate, and absorb 90 percent of the excess heat caused by human activities. Three billion people around the world depend on seafood as their main source of protein.

Millions of species, from microscopic plankton to majestic blue whales, form complex ecosystems below the ocean’s surface. But overfishing, combined with climate change and pollution, has put marine biodiversity under enormous pressure.

Right now, governments are meeting in New York to negotiate the first High Seas Conservation Treaty. It couldn’t come at a more critical time. (Visit the high seas alliance to see what progress is being made in the talks.)

Currently, only about 1 percent offshore are fully or highly protected compared to 17 percent of the land within protected areas. Scientists recommend that at least 30 percent of the oceans should be protected by 2030 in order to effectively preserve marine ecosystems, with the remaining 70 percent managed sustainably.

What could be more important than protecting what sustains all life?

The current United Nations conference is the fifth attempt to negotiate an Ocean Treaty. Negotiations have been going on for more than 10 years in an attempt to broker an agreement that balances human activities with ocean resources, protects marine life and habitats, and ensures marine resources are managed sustainably.

A strong treaty would go a long way toward protecting 30 percent of ocean resources by 2030, particularly if it includes a framework for establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the high seas. Fully or highly protected MPAs, where extractive activity is restricted, have demonstrated their effectiveness in the protection and restoration of biodiversity, allowing the oceans to be more resilient to climate change and recover from the impact of extractive activities, such as overfishing.

There are currently limited effective mechanisms for countries to create and enforce MPAs on the high seas – the High Seas Treaty could resolve this. But if we fail to protect and regenerate the ocean, not only millions of species will be affected, but also billions of humans who depend on healthy seas. (You can participate by signing this request.)

It is difficult to understand that humans could have the ability to destroy something so powerful. But conversely, we also have the power to protect it: all we need is a common will. And what could be more important, or more of a uniting force, than protecting what supports all life as we know it?

The high seas belong to no one, but it is crucial for everyone.

Main image: fran_kie / Shutterstock

Published in collaboration with:


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