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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 .”
This lack of protection has increasingly vexed conservationists who for more than a decade have been advising that global action must be taken to protect the biodiversity of the high seas. This pressure has now produced an international response. Next month a major conference, organised by the United nations organization, will be held in New York in a bid to get governments to agree measures to protect the high seas before their biodiversity is irreparably damaged. This will be followed by other sessions aimed at creating a treaty that would control and protect wildlife by 2020.
” These negotiations represent the greatest opportunity in history to decide the future of our oceans ,” said Sandra Schottner of Greenpeace’s Global Oceans campaign.” The life of our seas- from dolphins and turtles to blue whales- varies depending on the outcome of the next two years of discussions. Governments now have an opportunity to deliver a treaty that will be used to protect oceans for the first time .”
Just over 70% of our planet is covered with ocean and of that ocean, 58% lies outside national jurisdiction. These are the high seas and they lie outside the 200 nautical mile restriction that extends from individual countries’ shorelines and marks the boundaries of their national water. Outside these limits, on the high seas, there is actually no effective protection for animals, plants or habitats.
” It has meant that more than 40% of the entire surface of the Earth has no protection for its wildlife or habitat ,” says Roberts.” It is a highly disturbing situation, to say the least .”