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Daily News Blog

10
Mar

193 Countries in the United Nations Approve Treaty to Stop the Oceans from Dying

(Beyond Pesticides, March 10, 2023) Following years of discussions and negotiations, 193 United Nations member countries have just approved — for the first time — a draft treaty for protection of the globe’s “high seas” and their denizens. The March 4 adoption of the draft marks the achievement of a potential legal framework for such protections, but is also the beginning of “a long journey to ensure the world’s oceans are adequately protected for future generations,” according to coverage by NewScientist. As research out of Boston College identifies, our oceans are badly polluted by multiple substances — including pesticides and other agricultural runoff; industrial and petrochemical waste; and the synthetic chemicals embedded in plastics — that threaten human health. The treaty, which must be adopted by member states and then ratified by at least 60 countries to take effect could be a critical development for meeting the COP15 “30 by 30” goal of protecting 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030 to slow and arrest global biodiversity losses. Beyond Pesticides has long covered the ecological harms of ocean pollution

The treaty represents a step toward implementation of President Biden’s 2021 “America the Beautiful Initiative,” proclaiming “the first-ever national conservation goal” established by a President — a goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.” That said, the U.S. has a poor track record on approval of UN environmental treaties; approval requires a two-thirds majority affirmative vote in the Senate, and failure on that would block a Presidential signature and ratification.

Consensus on the draft treaty — titled “Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction” — was not easy. Since 2004 nations have been in discussions about how to create environmental protections for international waters, but these repeatedly got bogged down around issues related to fishing rights, resource rights, funding, and allocation of the benefits of marine genetic resources (MGRs) derived from deep-sea corals, seaweeds, sponges, krill, and bacteria — in which the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries are very interested. Since 2022’s COP15 summit, pressure from global NGOs and the so-called “high ambition coalition” (the U.S., United Kingdom, European Union [EU], and China) has mounted, and is credited with helping to get consensus on the treaty “over the line.” Promises of more funding, including roughly US$857 million from the EU, also greased the wheels.

This treaty addresses the world’s “high seas,” defined as oceans that lie in international waters and thus, are not subject to national regulations. Stockholm University’s Frida Bengtsson was quoted by NewScientist: “The high seas belong to everyone; juridically, they’re seen as ‘the common heritage of mankind,’ just as space or the moon.” The high seas include the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and Southern oceans, which host important areas of unique marine habitat and significant biodiversity that are under real threat from pollution, overfishing, and climate change. Roughly two-thirds of our oceans — covering about half the planet — are in the “high seas” category, which also means there are few legal protections in place for them, especially related to environmental threats or risks.

The world’s oceans occupy half of the planet’s surface and comprise two-thirds of oceanic real estate. They generate half of the oxygen humans breathe, host 95% of the biosphere of the Earth, and are, in the aggregate, the largest carbon sink. They are a primary regulator of global climate; and they are in trouble.

The research referenced above was the first to conduct a focused examination of ocean pollution’s impacts on human health; it reviewed nearly 600 scientific reports on various aspects of maritime contamination. Published in Annals of Global Health and released at the Monaco International Symposium on Human Health & the Ocean in a Changing World, the research paper concluded that ocean pollution is worsening, and that when the toxins from that pollution return to terra firma, they threaten the health and well-being of more than three billion people worldwide.

Lead researcher Philip Landrigan, MD is director of the Boston College Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, and the university’s Global Public Health Program and Global Observatory on Planetary Health, commented in a news release: “People have heard about plastic pollution in the oceans, but that is only part of it. Research shows the oceans are being fouled by a complex stew of toxins including mercury, pesticides, industrial chemicals, petroleum wastes, agricultural runoff, and manufactured chemicals embedded in plastic. These toxic materials in the ocean get into people, mainly by eating contaminated seafood. . . . We are all at risk, but the people most seriously affected are people in coastal fishing communities, people on small island nations, indigenous populations, and people in the high Arctic. The very survival of these vulnerable populations depends on the health of the seas.”

The research team’s central findings were these:

  • mercury pollution is widespread in the oceans, accumulating to high levels in predator fish; once in the food chain, this poses documented risks to people who consume these fish
  • burning coal is the primary source of mercury contamination; mercury toxins vaporize as coal burns and eventually land in ocean waters
  • coastal pollution — industrial waste, agricultural runoff, pesticides, and human sewage — has increased the incidence of damaging algal blooms, which produce toxins associated with neurological harms, dementia, amnesia, and death
  • plastic waste in the oceans (to the tune of 8 to 10 million tons a year) is ubiquitous; it breaks down mechanically into microplastic particles that contaminate and can kill fish, seabirds, and other marine organisms; virtually all humans now harbor these microplastics in their bodies

The 5 Gyres Institute has amplified very recent research (published on March 8) that identifies a shocking metric: there is now a great and growing “plastic smog” in the world’s oceans, comprised of 170 trillion plastic particles. From the paper abstract: “Today’s global abundance is estimated at approximately 82–358 trillion plastic particles weighing 1.1–4.9 million tonnes. We observed no clear detectable trend until 1990, a fluctuating but stagnant trend from then until 2005, and [then] a rapid increase until the present. This observed acceleration of plastic densities in the world’s oceans, also reported for beaches around the globe, demands urgent international policy interventions.”

Read recent Beyond Pesticides coverage of the damaging impacts of ocean pollution (from plastics, synthetic agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, pharmaceutical waste, etc.) on marine biodiversity, and on plankton, in particular. Plankton, which comprise small and microscopic plant, animal, bacterial, and fungal organisms, are the basis of the ocean food chain. They are consumed by krill, which are eaten by fish, which are then consumed by larger ocean creatures, and by terrestrial animals — including billions of human beings. Plankton could credibly be considered “über-keystone species” for their function as the basis of the marine (and a significant part of the terrestrial) food chain. Their plummeting numbers — a global population drop of 40% since 1950 — should sound a dire alarm.

The researchers’ recommendations on mitigating the pollution pipeline to our oceans include:

  • create, expand, and safeguard marine protected areas
  • shift rapidly from use of fossil fuels for energy to renewables (wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal)
  • eliminate coal combustion entirely, and tightly control all industrial uses of mercury
  • reduce plastics production and ban production of single-use plastics
  • promote effective waste management and recycling
  • reduce agricultural releases of nitrogen, and phosphorus, as well as animal waste, industrial discharges, and discharge of sewage into coastal waters
  • execute robust monitoring of ocean pollution and extend pollution control programs to cover all countries
  • support research on the extent, severity, and human health impacts of ocean pollution

Given the state of the world’s oceans, and the peril represented by their intensive contamination, this treaty cannot happen fast enough. In 2022, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission outlined the variety of threats our oceans face:

  • climate change warms and acidifies waters, causing death of coral reefs and threats to other ocean organisms, as well as thermal expansion of sea water (water molecules become more distant from one another) because of warmer temperatures, leading to more wetland flooding, erosion, and contamination of littoral agricultural lands
  • plastic pollution causes physical damage to ocean creatures (entanglement, suffocation, lacerations, infection, and internal injury); 80% of ocean plastic originates with terrestrial human activity, largely littering/inappropriate plastic disposal; 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year
  • nonpoint source pollution is the runoff from land to ocean (including pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural lands and other managed turf), precipitation, and atmospheric deposition
  • petrochemical/oil spills
  • ocean dumping is intentional discharge from industry, sewers, oil tankers, and entities that discard trash into the seas
  • shipping and transport “contribute” waste and trash to the oceans; these activities account for a big chunk of the economic activity supported by oceans (90% of global trade uses sea routes); dredging to expedite shipping disturbs ecosystems; maritime transport generates 30% of global emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides; the shipping industry also generates noise pollution that harms marine organisms
  • extractive industries, such as deep-sea mining and offshore oil drilling
  • fishing and fishing gear contribute significantly to ocean pollution by leaving behind harmful (often plastic) debris; industrial fishing nets (usually plastic), abandoned or lost, are a chief problem

Advocates say that a critically important impact of the treaty would be the creation of international marine protected areas in which destructive activities, such as industrial fishing, deep sea mining, or offshore/deep water petroleum drilling could be restricted. Among the general principles embedded in the draft treat are:
• the Precautionary Principle

  • the polluter pays
  • the common heritage of humankind
  • equity, including the fair and equitable sharing of benefits
  • integrated, ecosystemic approaches
  • recognition of the special circumstances of small island developing states and least-developed countries

In response to affirmation of the draft treaty, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that it would prove “crucial for addressing the triple planetary cris[e]s of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.” World Wildlife Fund’s Jessica Battle commented, “What happens on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ . . . We can now look at the cumulative impacts on our ocean in a way that reflects the interconnected blue economy and the ecosystems that support it.”

Dr. Landrigan sounds a hopeful note, saying, “The key thing to realize about ocean pollution is that, like all forms of pollution, it can be prevented using laws, policies, technology, and enforcement actions that target the most important pollution sources. Many countries have used these tools and have successfully cleaned fouled harbors, rejuvenated estuaries, and restored coral reefs. The results have been increased tourism, restored fisheries, improved human health, and economic growth. These benefits will last for centuries.”

From its lane, Beyond Pesticide emphasizes that the transition from conventional, chemical-intensive agricultural and land management practices and products to organic would all but eliminate one important source of toxic ocean pollution.

Sources: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2362921-what-is-the-un-high-seas-treaty-and-will-it-save-the-worlds-oceans/ and https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/bcnews/science-tech-and-health/earth-environment-and-sustainability/landrigan-ocean-report.html

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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