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Marathon talks and a decade of negotiations end in historic treaty to protect oceans

After 15 years of stalled talks, more than 100 countries reached a historic agreement to protect the high seas on Saturday, a long-awaited step that environmental groups say will help reverse marine biodiversity losses from climate change and overfishing.

The legally binding UN treaty to conserve and ensure the sustainable use of ocean biodiversity was finally agreed on after five rounds of protracted UN-led negotiations that ended on Saturday, a day after the original deadline.

“The ship has reached the shore,” said the UN conference’s president Rena Lee, after a marathon final stretch of talks hit 38 hours.

The treaty is a crucial component in global efforts to bring 30 per cent of the world’s land and sea under protection by the end of the decade, a target known as “30 by 30”.

“Today the world came together to protect the ocean for the benefit of our children and grandchildren,” Monica Medina, an assistant secretary of state, was quoted as saying by the New York Times.

“We leave here with the ability to create protected areas in the high seas and achieve the ambitious goal of conserving 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.”

Economic interests were a major sticking point throughout the latest round of negotiations, which began on 20 February, with developing countries calling for a greater share of the spoils from the “blue economy”, including the transfer of technology.

An agreement to share the benefits of “genetic resources” used in industries like biotechnology also remained an area of contention until the end, dragging out talks.

Greenpeace says 11 million sqkm of ocean needs to be put under protection every year until 2030 to meet the target.

Very little of the high seas is currently subject to any protection, with pollution, acidification and overfishing posing a growing threat.

“Countries must formally adopt the treaty and ratify it as quickly as possible to bring it into force, and then deliver the fully protected ocean sanctuaries our planet needs,” said Laura Meller, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner who attended the talks.

“The clock is still ticking to deliver 30 by 30. We have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent.”

Additional reporting by agencies