Species from sharks and sea cucumbers to tuna and jellyfish could find new safe havens soon under a U.N. plan to protect more ocean habitat.

At a meeting in New York next week, officials hope to create a “robust system” to increase the number of marine protected habitats in international waters, or high seas, from human activities like overfishing.

Currently, individual countries can easily create regulations to protect marine habitats in their own waters or exclusive economic zones, said Elizabeth Wilson, director of international ocean policy at the Pew Charitable Trusts. The same is not true in the ocean waters outside national jurisdictions.

“On the high seas, it’s a significantly more complicated process—there is not a mechanism to create marine protected areas,” Wilson said.

The U.N. preparatory committee meetings are part of a long-term international goal to protect greater portions of the world’s oceans. Today, 2 percent of the oceans are covered by marine protected areas. As part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, countries have committed to increase that amount to 10 percent by 2020.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is among a coalition of organizations, called the High Seas Alliance, working to help the United Nations develop a way to create protected areas in waters around the world. But coming to an agreement will be no small task. Countries must decide what kinds of habitats and species will receive protection, how large and how closely spaced protected areas should be, and how many people can enter these areas, among other considerations.

Wilson said Pew is focused on encouraging the United Nations to set up comprehensive marine protections on the high seas that strictly limit, or even prohibit, fishing and other human activities.

“Some are saying fisheries should be excluded from this agreement, some are saying fishing is already managed ... but the majority [of participants] say, ‘No, it needs to be included,’” she said.

The organization is also pushing for the creation of environmental impact assessments of the high seas so that policymakers will be better able to judge the effects of different plans on habitats and marine populations.

Climate change an added threat

While Wilson said she was hopeful that participating nations would put forward ambitious proposals, recent research suggests that the United Nations’ 10 percent target falls far short of what is necessary to help protect and restore species stressed by overfishing, habitat destruction and climate change.

In order to be effective, protected areas should cover at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans, and benefits increase significantly if as much as 50 percent of the oceans are protected, according to a literature review study published this week in Conservation Letters.

Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York in England and co-author of the study, was also among a team of researchers who first proposed protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans in the early 2000s.

“The world hasn’t been taking marine protections seriously enough,” Roberts said. “These high seas take up 41 percent of the planet, and they receive virtually no protection and are dreadfully mismanaged.”

Though fishing poses the greatest threat to marine species, warming and acidification driven by climate change are becoming more pressing stressors on marine life.

“We’ve got to rebuild the ability to address these changing conditions and ease some of the pressures on them. That’s why marine protected areas are so important,” he said.

“In the case of marine life, we need to reduce stresses as much as possible so they can produce as much offspring as they can and they are more able to deal with the adverse effects of climate change.”

Advocates say more must be protected

The most effective way to protect species would be to create protected areas far from human activity, but in practice, there would have to be protected areas in a lot of different places so they could provide the broadest possible benefits, Roberts said.

He described the 10 percent marine protection goal as the result of a political compromise rather than any scientific analysis. Initially, countries were supposed to meet the target by 2012. By 2010, when it was clear that countries were nowhere close to meeting the goal, the United Nations moved the deadline back to 2020.

In 2014, Roberts and his colleagues revisited the scientific literature, evaluating over 100 studies to confirm whether a larger body of research supported their earlier recommendation to further expand protected areas.

“We can say with far greater conviction that we need to be far higher than 10 percent,” he said.

Though the current targets may be lower than Roberts would like, he said last year saw the greatest number of marine protected areas ever produced.

Wilson agreed that momentum to protect the world’s oceans had increased, even in the last 12 months.

“Last year, there was a fairly small number of countries actively engaging; now there are a lot of new countries coming to the table,” she said.

Not only that, countries that had already agreed to participate are now bringing larger teams to meetings. The success of the Paris agreements may have helped convince countries that tackling a complicated environmental problem would be possible, she added.

“It was encouraging that we can do something big that will change the status quo,” she said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500