Governments need to ratify ocean preservation treaty, Greenpeace urges

New Greenpeace report calls for 30% of ocean to be sanctuary by 2030.

Photo of Tina Orduno Calderon singing and holding a wooden instrument. They are wearing a red shirt and sunglasses.

“I wanted to start by acknowledging my ancestors, as well as my tribal relatives past, present and emerging,” said Tina Orduno Calderon, after opening the Greenpeace news conference with a short, prayerful song.

Calderon is a culture bearer of Gabrielino Tongva, Chumash, Yoeme and Chicana descent. She, along with a handful of other speakers, appeared today on the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace ship docked in Long Beach, California, to urge governments to protect ocean sanctuaries.

The event announced the launch of Greenpeace’s latest report, “30x30: From global ocean treaty to protection at sea.”

Greenpeace also used the event as an opportunity to premiere a short animated film called “Sanctuary,” featuring the voices of Simon Pegg, Jane Fonda and Camila Cabello. The film showed a whale who guides a flying fish and an eel through industrial fishing nets to an ocean sanctuary.

“Scientists have pointed out that due to the rapid declines of our oceans from everything from overfishing and destructive fishing, and pollution and climate change, protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030 is sort of our best bet for avoiding the worst impacts of biodiversity loss, extinction and climate change,” said Arlo Hemphill, project lead for Greenpeace’s U.S. ocean sanctuary campaign.

A copy of Greenpeace’s 30x30 report executive summary obtained by Annenberg Media calls for governments to “take action” to protect marine areas. The report says that the treaty “fills a gaping hole in planetary governance and protection,” calling for governments to push to fulfill the goal of 30% of the ocean marked as sanctuaries by the year 2030.

The United Nations held its first International Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction in 2018. The purpose of the conference included drafting an internationally binding agreement on sustaining and conserving marine areas.

Work on the treaty started over 20 years ago, according to Greenpeace’s lead “Protect the Oceans” campaigner Chris Thorne. He said that treaty negotiations, which began about five years ago, were stalled by both the COVID-19 pandemic and uncooperative countries in the global north.

“It was Great Britain, the European Union, the U.S.A., Canada; they presented a deal in that round of negotiations that was too late in the process,” said Thorne. “There wasn’t enough time for countries in the global south to actually properly assess what was on the table.”

But after five sessions and five years, the conference adopted by consensus what is now known as the Global Oceans Treaty. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls the treaty an “extraordinary diplomatic achievement.”

Now that the treaty has been adopted by the United Nations, individual member nations must decide whether they want to pass necessary legislation that will allow them to ratify the treaty. It will take the cooperation of 60 countries to ratify the treaty.

“Then this treaty will enter into force and actually become a real thing, a tool that governments can use to regulate the high seas and deliver protection to those ecosystems,” Thorne said.

In Greenpeace’s report, and throughout the Protect the Oceans event, the phrase “high seas” is used to refer to marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), sections of the oceans from seabed to surface water outside of any government’s control. ABNJ cover 73% of the ocean’s volume and 61% of the area of the ocean.

These areas lack legislative bodies — anything goes on the high seas.

“42% of the planet is covered by international waters,” Hemphill says. “That’s almost half of the planet. And for centuries, it was basically treated like the aquatic wild west, where anything went, and there’s no rules, there’s no regulations.”

Speakers at Greenpeace’s event stressed the importance of indigenous leadership and traditional techniques in the process of preserving marine areas. Northern Chumash Tribal Council executive assistant Gianna Patchen felt that, while she is not indigenous herself, listening to indigenous voices is key.

“Uplifting the work that’s already being done by tribes” is meaningful, said Patchen. “The Chumash sanctuary is one example of work being done by indigenous peoples to do marine conservation that is meaningful, long-lasting and incorporates knowledge long term.”

Calderon agreed, saying, “Our people have received original instructions. And it has passed down through millennia. We haven’t wavered in being good relatives, and living in respect and reciprocity, and continuing a balance, a harmony and a balance, that’s so necessary for all life to survive.”

Greenpeace’s push is in its final sprint. The United Nations General Assembly opens the Global Ocean Treaty for signatures on September 20, 2023. Although a signature is nonbinding, it indicates strong intent to ratify for the country that signs - and 60 total signatures are needed.

“The signing of this treaty is going to be a significant step in us now looking at the areas of what used to be called the high seas for protection,” said Solomon “Uncle Sol” Pili Kahoʻohalahala, a Hawaiian elder and indigenous leader in his closing statements.