The five-day UN Ocean Conference got underway in Lisbon on Monday, drawing senior officials and scientists from around the world, as well as activists dismayed by the failure to come up with international rules that might ensure ocean sustainability.
No comprehensive legal framework currently covers the high seas, something the United Nations is hoping to change in the near future.
In his opening remarks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries to show "unity and togetherness around the issues of the sea.''
"Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency," Guterres said. "We must turn the tide.''
'World's largest ecosystem is unprotected'
Oceans cover some 70% of the Earth's surface, provide food and livelihoods for billions of people and are home to some of the planet's most vital ecosystems.
The conference is set to adopt a declaration that is nonbinding but could help implement and facilitate the protection and conservation of oceans and their resources, according to the UN. The declaration is due to be endorsed on Friday.
As for the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, also known as the Treaty of the High Seas, a vital resource for ocean protection, negotiations are still ongoing after 10 years. A fifth round of talks is scheduled to take place in New York in August.
"The world's largest ecosystem ... is still unprotected and is dying as we watch,'' the activist group Ocean Rebellion said ahead of the Lisbon event.
Despite the frustrations, the conference is "an important opportunity to accelerate'' steps toward a high seas treaty, the UN said.
The conference is also expected to reaffirm and build upon the some 62 commitments made by governments at the previous summit in 2018, which include issues like protecting small island states with ocean-based economies, sustainable fishing and combating warming waters.
Financing models for ocean conservation are also on the agenda this year, as well as coming up with science-based, innovative solutions that might improve ocean health.
Call for moratorium on deep-sea mining
One of the first issues addressed at the meeting was the nascent industry of deep-sea mining, in which heavy machinery is used to extract rocks from the ocean floor that contain rare metals, such as those used in batteries.
The Pacific islands of Palau and Fiji on Monday launched an "alliance" to call for a moratorium on the practice, which many consider a potential threat to ocean biodiversity.
Palau President Surangel Whipps asked, "How can we in our right minds say 'let's go mining' without knowing what the risks are?"
"We believe it is not worth the risk," he said. "We ask all of you to support that... deep-sea mining increases the vulnerability of the seabed floor and marine life."
G7 countries agreed last month that deep-sea mining should be subject to strict controls and said they would approve mining projects only if the marine environment was not seriously harmed.
However, China and some other countries are eager to see deep-sea mining go ahead.
The UN's International Seabed Authority (ISA) is currently drawing up regulations for deep-sea mining in areas outside any national jurisdiction. Mining is not allowed until global rules are established.
tj, es/wmr (AP, AFP)