After a decade of negotiations, nations have agreed to the High Seas Treaty, reserving more than 30% of the world’s oceans for protected areas by 2030. To date, just 1.2% of international waters are protected. The treaty will help safeguard marine life from climate impacts, overfishing and shipping traffic, and signals an end to using oceans as a global feeding and dumping commons.
Newly protected areas will limit fishing and exploration activities like deep-sea mining, which have long since been demonstrated to threaten marine life and create hazardous noise pollution. The International Seabed Authority has stated that any future deep-sea mining activity will be subject to strict environmental regulations and oversight.
One of the main issues during negotiations was the equitable sharing of marine genetic resources, an umbrella term for the many natural resources extracted from the oceans used for medical and consumer products. Richer nations have more resources and funding to explore the ocean, but poorer nations want to ensure any benefits are shared equally.
The treaty is a breakthrough in international environmental law, but now the hard part begins. The treaty will need to be formally ratified domestically by party countries before it can be implemented, and that process is expected to take years.
The timing of the High Seas Treaty couldn’t be better, as several new threats to the world’s oceans are rising alongside temperatures.
Chief among those emerging concerns is the ever-growing reach of Sargassum algal blooms.
Sargassum, a type of seaweed that grows in vast pelagic fields, is the world's biggest seaweed bloom, and is fed by human activities such as intensive soya farming in the Congo, the Amazon and the Mississippi, which dumps nitrogen and phosphorus into the ocean.
Sargassum has been causing catastrophic environmental and economic fallout in areas that have been affected by it, such as the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, where it harms coastal wildlife and fish and interferes with vital infrastructure, including water and power supplies. The thick, brown algae first came to popular attention when it started impinging on Instagram-ready tourism. Sargassum breaks down into hydrogen sulphide when it decays and can cause eye irritation in humans and may provoke pregnancy complications in women living on the coast.
Part of the problem in dealing with Sargassum is preserving its ecological merits. The sturdy algae provide a safe harbour and breeding ground for fish, turtles and other marine life, but its growth is metastasizing, due in large part to climate change. Increased sea surface temperatures, upwelling and changing currents have combined with nutrients caused by human activity, such as sewage and soya farming in the basins of the great rivers of North and South America and Africa.
Now the hunt is on for solutions. Composting sargassum or using it for biofuel are not practicable, as the heavy metals it contains, particularly arsenic, make it dangerous to feed to plants. Likewise, removing the heavy metals for industrial repurposing requires so much processing that it is not cost-effective.
The main climate benefit of sargassum is its affinity for carbon. Sargassum is among the most carbon-dense algae and if it can’t be harvested for other purposes, one solution may be to simply sink it to the bottom of the sea.
Signs of the dreaded Arctic feedback loops are emerging in Greenland's coastal marine ecosystem.
As temperatures reach their highest levels in 1,000 years, Arctic sea ice is dwindling rapidly, with the oldest and thickest of it declining by 95% during three decades of global warming. Inuit communities are reporting that signs of endemic species such as narwhals and walruses are scarce, and are being replaced by animals typically found in more southerly waters.
One of the driving forces behind this shift is a significant decrease in summer sea ice arriving from the Beaufort Sea. As the ice regulates temperatures, reflects sunlight, and provides critical habitat and nursery grounds for animals, its absence creates the potential for cascading effects throughout entire ecosystems.
The regime shift has already caused the unprecedented numbers of dolphins, humpback, and fin whales along the east coast of Greenland. While these appearances might speak to the adaptability of those species, they place immense stress on endemic species like narwhal, which are moving north as the water warms and invaders arrive.
Human-centred industries are also adapting to the new normal in Iceland. Changes in species distributions, especially fish, could reshape commercial fisheries. Bluefin tuna, which had never been recorded off the eastern shore of Greenland prior to 2012, have been recorded every year since.
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