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Historic UN treaty could protect the world's oceans and marine life

UN High Seas Biodiversity Treaty
Brian Inganga
FILE - Fish swim near some bleached coral at Kisite Mpunguti Marine park, Kenya, June 11, 2022. For the first time, United Nations members have agreed on a unified treaty on Saturday, March 4, 2023, to protect biodiversity in the high seas — nearly half the planet’s surface.

A United Nations treaty finalized over the weekend would designate 30% of the world's oceans as protected areas, and put more money into marine conservation. Advocates say it's breakthrough after more than a decade of talks.

The High Seas Treaty applies to areas beyond national jurisdiction, generally more than 200 miles offshore. It is part of the commitment UN delegates made at a biodiversity conference in December, where they pledged to conserve 30% of the planet's lands, coasts and waters by decade's end.

Beth Orcutt of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences says it's a significant step toward conserving marine habitat. And she says the treaty could help mitigate climate change by protecting the places that are best at sequestering carbon.

"We know that there's places on the planet where than happens more then others," Orcutt says. "So those might be places that we want to consider protecting, so that function is maintained, or even enhanced, as opposed to being degraded."

She says the treaty will also ensure that all of humanity benefits equally from any genetic material in these areas that might be used in biotechnology, not just the most developed nations.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.