Oceans’ last chance:’ It’s taken years of negotiations to set this up’

Wildlife in most of the lawless high seas faces an existential threat from fishing, shipping and the military. Next month, a landmark UN conference could ultimately bring hope

The leatherback turtle is one of our planet’s most distinctive animals. It can live for decades and grow to weigh up to two tonnes. It is the largest living reptile on Earth and its evolutionary roots reach back more than 100 million years.

” Leatherbacks are living fossils ,” says oceanographer Professor Callum Roberts, of York University.” But they are not prospering. In fact, they are being wiped out at an exceptional rate, particularly in the Pacific Ocean, where their numbers have declined by 97% over the past three decades. They are now critically endangered there .”

Leatherbacks are suffering for several reasons. They have been hunted for their meat for centuries and the spread of tourist resorts disrupts turtles when they come ashore to lay their eggs on sandy beaches. But the cause of the latest, most massive decline in numbers of Dermochelys coriacea has a far more pernicious cause: long-line angling in the high seas.

Some trawlers now drag fishing lines that are more than 75 miles long, each bristling with hookings. Tens ofthousands of sea turtles get snagged on these and drown every year.” It is tragic ,” says Roberts.

And this bloodbath goes unchecked- for the simple reason that there is no protection at all for species, endangered or otherwise, on oceans outside national waters. The listing includes fish and seabirds, plus fragile ecosystems such as deep-sea corals.

” Outside national water, in the high seas, it is essentially a no man’s land when it comes to protecting sensitive surroundings and their dwellers ,” says Paul Snelgrove, a deep-sea biologist at Memorial University in St John’s, Canada.” It is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs .”

Quick guide

The Antarctic model

The Atlantic model

In October 2016, delegates from 24 country level the EU agreed that the Ross Sea in Antarctica should become the world’s largest marine protected area. Almost 600,000 square miles of the remote Southern Ocean has gained protection under the scheme.

It is not the only MPA on the planet, but it is considered by many to be the best because it has the strictest the provisions and should therefore act as model for future areas that might be put up under a high sea protection treaty.

In particular, commercial fishing is to be banned within its borders- and that is what constructs the Ross Sea reserve special.

The area has been set up under the auspices of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and is a model for the type of organisation that will need in future, says Professor Callum Roberts, of York University.

” It has provisions to protect nature first and to allow exploitation second. There is a real embodiment of cooperation within that pact. It is a great example of how things should be structured in future .”

Photograph: Brian J. Skerry/ National Geographic Magazines

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