how the new UN treaty aims to protect species on the high seas

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A humpback whale that we tagged while feeding West Antarctic Peninsula made a round trip of almost 19,000 km in 265 days, traveling north from Antarctica to its breeding ground off Colombia and back. Whales migrate thousands of miles each year, congregating to mate and give birth in tropical and subtropical regions during the winter, then heading to cooler waters at higher latitudes to feast on abundant prey. during summer.

Theories aboundbut scientists still can’t agree on why whales undertake these epic migrationsor even how they manage to navigate vast ocean basins.

In a new report from WWF, a global environmental charity, scientists have compiled the migration tracks of more than 1,000 whales around the world, recorded using satellite tags. For the first time, the global scale and extent of the routes taken by whales during their migrations has been illuminated. The report adds to the growing understanding among scientists that the routes between critical feeding and breeding habitats are as important to whales as the settings themselves.

Migration tracks of more than 1,000 whales worldwide, according to the WWF Protecting Blue Corridors report.
WWF, Author provided

These routes also reveal how perilous the ocean becomes for these giants. Climate change is changing where and when whales can reliably find foodwhile fisheries cast nets and ropes that can trap and drown whales. Meanwhile around 11 billion tons of freight is transported by sea every year. The routes taken by these vessels cross the paths migrating whales and other sea animals that can be struck and killed.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, six of the 13 largest whale species are either endangered or vulnerable, even after decades of protection following the end of most commercial whaling activities. . 1986.

Marine protected areas created by individual countries are one way to protect whales from some of these threats. These are areas where certain activities, such as fishing, are restricted or prohibited. Currently, marine protected areas cover less than 8% of the ocean.

But whales move through the waters of several countries during their migration and spend much of that time on the high seas, where alone 1.2% of the ocean is under some form of protection. Clearly, protecting whales requires a global effort.

Whales beyond borders

Geopolitical boundaries are invisible to whales but have extraordinary consequences for them. Under the United Nations Convention on the law of the sea, countries have the right to fish and conduct other activities within 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) extending from their coasts. Countries that designate marine protected areas in their EEZ can help conserve local ocean habitats.

But because laws vary widely from country to country, it is difficult to coordinate efforts to protect whales, even if international agreements like the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals try to do just that.

There is little point in protecting whales in a country, using measures such as marine protected areas or rules restricting shipping and fishing, when they may face more relaxed regulations in the another country’s EEZ during a single migration. The WWF report showed that 367 humpback whales tracked by satellite in the Southern Hemisphere crossed the EEZs of 28 countries together during their migrations.

The 64% of the ocean that encompasses the high seas is beyond any EEZ and the authority of a single nation. Whales migrate between habitats thousands of miles apart, so it’s no surprise that many species spend much of their lives there. The 367 tracked humpback whales spent half their time in those areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction.

A study 2018 tracked 14 large species, from leatherback turtles to white sharks, across the Pacific Ocean and found that 29% of all positions recorded by satellite beacons were on the high seas. a 2020 studywe estimated that only 27% of Important Areas for Marine Mammals and Seabirds in the Southern Ocean were within EEZs.

Five large open whale mouths surrounded by seagulls on the surface of the ocean.
Some whales congregate in cool, productive waters to feed.
Chad Graham/WWF-Canada, Author provided

Marine protected areas on the high seas

International negotiations are underway to determine how to protect ocean species, including whales, outside EEZs. In the more than 222 million km² that make up the high seas, there are almost no marine protected areas.

Member States of the United Nations agreed in 2017 to to negotiate an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of the high seas. The fourth and final session of these negotiations is taking place in New York from 7 to 18 March. The treaty will include ways to designate marine protected areas on the high seas, and these areas could restrict activities that threaten whales and other marine species in areas critical to their survival.

However, the treaty will not design or implement these marine protected areas. This will rely on organizations like the Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, which, with the help of scientists, has located at least 159 important areas for marine mammals which could become protected. Migration routes in the WWF report will be essential to identify them.

Marine protected areas are just one of the measures that will be needed to make the high seas safer for marine mammals. Environmental defenders must deal with growing threats from climate change, fishing, shipping and pollution.

However, there are glimmers of hope. the International Maritime Organization and the international whaling commission work together to prevent ships from hitting the whales. In the meantime, changes to fishing gear and other tools have reduce the number of dolphins caught in the eastern tropical Pacific yellowfin tuna fisheries by 99%. A solid base of scientific evidence and cooperation locally, regionally and internationally is essential to the success of any conservation effort.

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