A unified treaty to protect open ocean biodiversity has been signed by the nations of the UN, for the first time.

In 1944, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea was enacted, protecting international rights at sea and putting into place a few environmental laws, mostly about dumping waste. It has only been occasionally updated since. But for the past twenty years, a new framework to protect marine life in nationless tracts of the ocean has been discussed. All attempts to reach an agreement have stalled, until now.

Late Saturday night, the unified treaty, which will protect more than half the planet’s surface, was agreed upon.

The treaty creates a new body inside the U.N. to manage conservation of ocean life and establish specific marine protected areas in the high seas, the legal term for ocean outside national borders. It also establishes ground rules for how to assess environmental impact and damages.

“We only really have two major global commons — the atmosphere and the oceans,” said Georgetown marine biologist Rebecca Helm in testimony before the U.N. While the oceans may draw less attention, “protecting this half of earth’s surface is absolutely critical to the health of our planet.”

The unified treaty is in line with the U.N. Biodiversity Conference’s pledge in 2022 to protect 30% of the planet’s waters for conservation.

Historically, the high seas have been ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for most conservation efforts. Commercial fishing and mining are under-regulated, and there are few consequences for the major contributors to oceanic pollution. An estimated 14 million tons of plastic is sent out to sea each year, and has been found everywhere from whale stomachs to the bottom of the deepest reaches to inside single-cell zooplankton.

It will be up to individual nations to give the new treaty its teeth, but its existence is a step in the right direction.

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