No need to wait for action on oceans

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After four days and a hard night of negotiations, governments meeting at the UN last week took a historic step toward ending the centuries-long free for all on the high seas.

We have the green light to negotiate the first major UN treaty for 30 years, and we can now look to a future in which we bring conservation for the benefit of all to these vital global commons.

From the outside looking in, I know an “agreement to negotiate” may not seem like headline news. You may wonder why I do this, and I have asked myself the same thing, sitting in windowless meeting rooms for weeks on end (this process started in 2004!). But focusing on the slow pace misses the point: when progress comes at the UN – when all states agree – we can achieve great things.

Laptev, Russia, August 2013. © Alexei Ebel / WWF-CanonLaptev, Russia, August 2013. © Alexei Ebel / WWF-Canon

Just imagine if fisheries are managed across the ocean; if all users of ocean resources are governed by one integrated framework. We can achieve healthy oceans for our children and their children, and that makes it worthwhile for me.

Progress last week came despite pressure from a small group of governments that questioned the need for a new legal framework. That minority blocked agreement on a faster timeline – one that would reflect the clear scientific imperative – but all countries eventually agreed on the need to act.

We still have a long way to go before we have a treaty. There’s lots of hard work to be done over the coming two years to ensure that the treaty says and does what we want it to – what the ocean needs it to. We have our work cut out for us! The beach can wait.

In the meantime, as governments negotiate, it’s important that no one waits for the treaty. The things we want the treaty to facilitate are all things that can happen now, voluntarily, informally, sector by sector, region by region. These include cooperation between sectors to ensure integrated ocean management, spatial planning to reduce cumulative impacts on marine life, reform of regional fisheries management organizations and better environmental impact assessments.

Local children, Banda Sea, Indonesia Alor, Banda Sea, Indonesia. © Robert Delfs / WWF-CanonLocal children, Banda Sea, Indonesia
Alor, Banda Sea, Indonesia. © Robert Delfs / WWF-Canon

While the high seas are more remote than our familiar coastlines, we’re talking about a treaty to improve the governance framework for shipping that crosses the ocean and for fish that know no boundaries, and to control fishing vessels that too often are unwelcome intruders in coastal fisheries. Although the new treaty will pertain to the high seas, it will have positive implications for hundreds of millions of people around the world who make their livings and feed their families from the sea.

Granted, we are still a long way from the solution we seek, and I am impatient for change. But change at a global scale takes time. Last week we saw the boulder budge. Now we keep pushing.

Jessica Battle is Marine Manager for WWF International. 

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