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After a decade of talks, a treaty has been agreed on to protect the world's oceans

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, we incorrectly identify the NRDC as the National Resources Defense Council. In fact, it is the Natural Resources Defense Council.]


The U.N. has reached a historic agreement on oceans. The treaty aims to protect biodiversity and environmental interests in international waters, roughly 40% of the Earth's surface. It also promotes a global cooperation to manage fishing, shipping and seafloor mining. Lisa Speer is the director of the National Resources Defense Council's International Oceans Program. She was part of the U.N. negotiating team. Lisa, what ground rules have been set here that will make the biggest difference?

LISA SPEER: So this treaty is a big step forward. It provides a pathway for establishing large-scale, strongly protected marine parks, which is what scientists tell us is needed to help reverse the decline of the world's oceans. It also lays the groundwork for strengthening management of human activities outside protected areas. So together, these two achievements, I think, will mark a major step forward for the ocean and biodiversity conservation worldwide.

MARTÍNEZ: And it took 20 years to make this deal happen. What was the clincher?

SPEER: I was - had a lot fewer gray hairs when we started. The clincher really was the resolution of a number of different issues, one of which was the basic divide between regulating existing activities on the high seas and the current structure of management versus enabling the global community to have a greater say in what happens in these international waters. And that played out in a variety of contexts, including through the sharing of any benefits that might derive from commercialization of what's called marine genetic resources, which are derived from the high seas. So there was a - there were some money issues in there, but there were also some power issues. You know, who gets to decide what happens in this global commons was a fundamental issue on the table during the negotiations.

MARTÍNEZ: And when it comes to addressing everything that's going to be addressed or that should be addressed with this agreement, how much of that do you think will, for lack of a better word, spill over to waters that are controlled by countries?

SPEER: Great question. So the ocean is a fluid environment, as we all know, and marine species don't respect international boundaries. They cross them regularly, migrating, you know, across entire oceans in some cases. So protection of the high seas will really help ensure that domestic waters of individual nations around the world do not suffer as a result of activities that are harmful in the high seas. And it's important because billions of people around the world rely on the ocean for basic needs - their food, their jobs, their income, their sustenance, culturally as well as economically. So it's a critically important piece of the ocean conservation puzzle that has been ignored for decades. And we've now finally gotten to a place where we have the groundwork laid to really change that and to make - bring the standards of management and conservation and protection up to those that are in - have been in place in the U.S. since the '70s, really, and in most countries for decades.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Lisa, what's the No. 1 way that this agreement will protect marine life?

SPEER: The most important step is it provides a pathway forward for creating large-scale marine parks, which are strongly protected, where damaging human activities are not permitted. And the science tells us that that is the single-most important thing we can do to enhance ocean resilience in the face of growing threats related to climate change, including, you know, ocean warming and ocean acidification, which is taking place as a result of CO2 emissions. So this is a big deal being able to establish these large-scale, strongly protected marine protected areas. It will - is probably the most - single-most important aspect of this agreement from a conservation standpoint.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Lisa Speer is with the National Resources Defense Council. Lisa, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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