In a few hours, when the UN Resolution on the Ocean and Law of the Sea is formally adopted by the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, it will recognize for the first time the vulnerability of the largest animals in the world ocean to a deadly cocktail of increasing human-generated threats.
This offers one rare ray of hope for marine life in a somber period marked by the disappearance of many species due to overfishing, by the conspicuous absence of the oceans in the COP21 agreement, and by the return of Japan's whaling fleet to Antarctic waters in defiance of the International Court of Justice.
By current estimates, such threats are together responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles in total every year, that is 50 to 80 times more than the number of animals killed by whale and seal hunts.
This diplomatic breakthrough, reached by consensus in the last week of November at the end of tense negociations, marks the outcome of a five-year battle led by the Principality of Monaco on the UN floor.
According to Prof. Frederic Briand, who in his capacity of special Envoy of the Prince of Monaco acted as main negotiator throughout, the battle was especially rude. This was due mostly to the reluctance of the few countries still engaged in whale and seal hunting to acknowledge at the same time the devastating impact on these animals of human-related stressors such as marine litter (mostly plastics today), ship strikes, underwater noise, oil spills, bioaccumulation of persistent contaminants in their body fats, entanglement in discarded fishing gear, or the physical degradation of their coastal habitats.
Prof. Frederic Briand, CIESM Director General and Special Envoy of the Prince of Monaco for UN marine negotiations
Dr Briand presented a large body of scientific evidence to back up these claims, emphasizing as well the dramatic absence of international legal instruments to protect the larger marine vertebrates, roughly 300 species in total - most of them highly migratory and crossing very long distances - in the high sea. In the end a consensus was reached and all Parties agreed that it was time for the UN to recognise the specific vulnerability of the higher levels of marine life, and so the new Resolution calls upon States and competent international organizations to cooperate and coordinate their research efforts in order to reduce the threats affecting large marine animals and so better preserve the integrity of the whole marine ecosystem.
As Frederic Briand, one of the longest-serving Commissioner at the International Whaling Commission, remarked, "this is a very good day for marine mammals and their friends: they live in a marine world that is 50 times noisier than the one they knew a few decades ago; thousands and thousands of them drown each year, largely unnoticed, entangled in ropes or in abandoned driftnets, others suffocate from swallowing plastic bags, when they are not cut in half by passing cargos. It is reassuring to know that these imposing yet fragile animals are now placed under UN watch."