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Is Canada a high seas laggard?

Canada is bordered by three oceans but has yet to sign the globe’s first international treaty to protect marine life in the high seas. – Oceanic Whitetip Shark by Gerald Schombs / Unsplash

By Rochelle Baker

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

via The National Observer 11/10/23

A coalition of more than 30 environmental groups is urging Canada to sign a watershed global ocean conservation treaty it pushed to bring about. The High Seas Treaty was finalized in March after more than a decade of negotiations, creating a blueprint for protecting ocean biodiversity and the fair, sustainable use of marine resources in international waters. The federal government celebrated the treaty along with Canada’s efforts to secure the agreement. But it hasn’t yet signed on.

More than 80 countries signed the treaty within a day of the Sept. 20 launch to support and advance the ratification process, said Susanna Fuller, vice-president of conservation and projects at Oceans North, one of the national and international environmental organizations that recently signed a letter urging Canada to follow suit. The United States, China, France, Germany, Australia, Britain, Mexico, Korea and the European Union and scores of small island nations rushed to ink the deal.

“Most countries that were supportive, and even countries we were surprised about, made it a priority and took the opportunity to sign it,” Fuller said.

“We really expected Canada to do that, but they didn’t.”

With three oceans and the longest coastline in the world, Canada has an outsized role in the global arena when it comes to creating marine protected areas in national and international waters, Fuller said.

But the longer Canada goes without acting on the treaty, the less weight and influence it has to shape ocean issues.

“Canada, as an ostensible environmental leader, needs to be a strong country,” she said.

“If they’re seen as a laggard in signing and in treaty ratification, they lose the opportunity to meaningfully engage.”

Canada says it intends to sign, but this delay sends the wrong message to international partners on its resolve on the treaty and related goals like protecting 30 per cent of all lands and seas by 2030, Fuller added.

“We just need Canada not to forget that this is actually a really important piece of other commitments that they have made.”

Sixty nations must ratify the treaty before its provisions come into force. No countries have ratified the agreement to date. Conservation groups fear the treaty is slipping off the federal government’s radar. This could dilute the ambition of other countries to speedily ratify the agreement, something that’s urgently needed as ocean temperatures and biodiversity loss continue to surge, Fuller added.

In addition to signing the treaty, the coalition is calling on Canada to fully ratify it before a key United Nations ocean conference in June 2025 as some other countries have said they will do.

The high seas cover half the planet but less than one per cent of international waters are protected despite harbouring vital marine ecosystems and buffering global warming, said Akaash Maharaj, Nature Canada’s policy director, in a statement.

The ocean also absorbs about 90 per cent of the heat generated by rising emissions but is increasingly undermined by superheated waters that are more and more acidic and low in oxygen.

Once in force, the treaty provides the framework for establishing marine protected areas in hot spots of diversity in high seas regions, Maharaj said.

It will guide how to assess the environmental impacts of new activities that might affect the ocean. And outlines how countries will share benefits from future products, like medicines or cosmetics, derived from marine life.

The open ocean supports an array of important migratory species like birds, whales, tuna and swordfish and regulates the climate, but the legal framework to protect it is still just out of reach, Fuller said.

“It’s not acceptable that in this day and age that we stumble around in the dark on the high seas,” she said.

“We should be able to afford them some level of protection… It’s what Canadians expect in our own oceans.”

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