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New High Seas Treaty Could Be a Gamechanger for the Ocean

Oceans
The green sea turtle's range extends throughout tropical and subtropical seas around the world. Constanza S. Mora / CC BY 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Most of us have never been to the world's immense last wilderness and never will. It's beyond the horizon and often past the limits of our imaginations. It contains towering underwater mountain ranges, ancient corals, mysterious, unknown forms of life and the largest seagrass meadow in the world.


Yet it begins just 200 nautical miles off our shores. Technically referred to as "areas beyond national jurisdiction," these remote expanses are known to most people simply as "the high seas."

Their vast, dark waters encompass roughly two-thirds of the ocean and half the planet and are the last great global commons. Yet just 1 percent are protected, leaving these vital but relatively lawless expanses open to overfishing, pollution, piracy and other threats.

That could change soon.

In 2018, after more than a decade of groundwork at the United Nations, negotiations officially began for a new treaty focused on conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the waters beyond national jurisdiction.

The proposed treaty is being developed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982 and defined nations' rights and responsibilities for use of the world's oceans. The Convention itself is a landmark agreement that established many key environmental protections and policies, but over the years it's become obvious that some gaps in its governance policy have left the ocean's ecosystems open to ongoing and emerging threats.

The new treaty is intended to help fill those gaps, although, as with any international agreement, that presents challenges. Representatives of world governments gathered in 2018 and 2019 for three rounds of negotiations, but many parts of the key issues remained unresolved. Among them are plans to establish a framework for evaluating and implementing area-based management tools, which include marine protected areas, since no such systems exist now for the high seas.

Other items requiring agreement include establishing uniform requirements for conducting environmental impact assessments; how benefits from marine genetic resources may be shared among nations; and capacity building for management and conservation.

Many experts hoped the fourth negotiation session, originally scheduled to begin March 23 at the U.N. headquarters in New York, would lead to the finalization of the treaty's text, but the meetings were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That pause gives us an opportunity to understand what's at stake a bit better.

"This is the first time that there's been a treaty process devoted to marine biodiversity in the high seas and the first ocean treaty really to be negotiated in over 30 years," said Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 environmental nonprofits and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "It's a big deal, and it's been a long time coming."

But this historic opportunity is also one that could be squandered if the treaty fails to enact protections strong enough to actually safeguard ocean life.

"It has the potential to be a gamechanger for the oceans," said Douglas McCauley, a professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology at U.C. Santa Barbara and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative. "But it's still to be determined whether it will be just the treaty version of lip service."

The Need for Protection

We're all connected to the high seas, even if we never actually see them, says Morgan Visalli, a project scientist at Benioff Ocean Initiative at U.C. Santa Barbara. "It's incredibly important for helping to regulate the climate, for providing oxygen, food and jobs."

Even on land we depend on a healthy ocean. Phytoplankton in the ocean generate half our oxygen, and the ocean plays a key role in mitigating climate change — absorbing 25 percent of our CO2 emissions and 90 percent of heat related to those emissions. It's also home to a rich diversity of species, some of which we're still discovering.

But marine ecosystems face grave threats from an onslaught of abuses: chemical, plastic and noise pollution; deep seabed mining and other kinds of resource extraction; increased shipping; overfishing and illegal fishing; and climate change, which is altering both the temperature and chemistry of the waters.

Cargo ship at sea. Bernard Spragg / public domain

Numerous strategies are needed to tackle these problems, including the bedrock component of reducing greenhouse gases.

But a key tool that scientists have identified to help restore biodiversity is establishing reserves, often referred to as ocean parks or marine protected areas.

We know pretty well how to do this in national waters — there are more than 15,000 of them already in places like Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Florida Keys. But few such protected areas exist in the high seas because there is no international framework to guide the process. One such effort to establish a marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea took years of research and diplomacy to implement.

It's simply not feasible to scale the process — especially in the time we'd need to do it. That's why creating such a framework for marine protected areas in waters outside of national waters is a key part of the new high-seas treaty negotiations.

And that fits into a larger global vision.

The participant nations in another international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, are set to convene this fall. The agenda includes a goal of enacting an international framework to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030.

It's a goal that scientists call a bare minimum. And it's one that may be impossible to meet without the high-seas treaty.

"The science is clear, if we're going to sustain a healthy, functioning ocean ecosystem, we need to be protecting at least 30% of the world's oceans," said Liz Karan, who leads efforts to protect the high seas for Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the High Seas Alliance.

In anticipation of the treaty's passage, scientists like Visalli and McCauley have already started modeling how new priority areas could be identified.

The other parts of the treaty, including environmental impact assessments and genetic resources, remain vital areas of discussion, but conservation groups have stressed the importance of protected ocean reserves for protecting the planet.

"If we want the ocean to continue its role in climate adaptation and being able to absorb the excess heat that it does, we need to create areas of resilience for the ocean," said Kalas. "And the best way to do that is marine protected areas."

The Challenges

Of course the devil is in the details.

While thousands of marine protected areas already exist, they come with varying levels of protections — much like we see with public lands. Some can be very restrictive, like national parks, or continue to allow extractive activities, such as in national forests.

Current marine protected areas range from no-take reserves that ban all extraction to areas allowing multiple uses — the latter are more common. Not surprisingly, though, scientific studies have shown that the no-take reserves do a much better job at protecting and restoring biodiversity.

Whether the treaty will be a landmark conservation effort or enshrine the status quo has yet to be determined, said Karan. "Both potential pathways are currently reflected in the draft treaty text" at this time.

From a scientific standpoint, McCauley says, marine protected areas should actually protect the wild character of the area and that means no activities — like mining or bottom trawling — that would disturb habitat. And the protections need to extend down from the ocean's surface, through the water column, to the seafloor.

A kelp forest in a marine protected area off the coast of California. Camille Pagniello / CC BY 2.0

To do that means figuring out how the new treaty would fit with a tangle of more than 20 existing governance organizations that regulate seabed mining, fisheries management and shipping regulations.

"One of our hopes is that this treaty would knit those pieces together and provide a little bit more coherence and compatibility with those issues, particularly with regards to conservation and sustainable use," said Karan.

There would also need to be a process for scientifically evaluating areas proposed for protections, and how the established reserves would be managed, and the restrictions enforced.

"The whole process, the whole vision and opportunity to think about doing something smarter and better — for the ocean, for biodiversity, for us — ends if we don't get strong language in the treaty and get that treaty to pass," said McCauley. "There's historical potential for the oceans, but we need to make sure people on the outside are watching the people on the inside [at the United Nations] in New York."

Road Ahead

Even though official treaty negotiations are on hold awaiting a decision on rescheduling the talks, work continues among governments as they review and refine their positions on numerous proposals submitted by states and NGOs.

The United States has been a participant in the talks, but the treaty process has largely flown under the radar among the general public so far. Given President Trump's position on environmental protections and distain for multilateralism (like the Paris climate agreement), that's been pretty intentional on the part of environmental NGOs.

But as efforts may be nearing the finish line, this is starting to shift. Karan says there's more interest from legislators about high seas governance and more need to have an engaged public who can advocate for strong conservation protections.

Things are complicated, though, by the fact that the United States never ratified the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, widely considered a "Constitution" for the ocean.

There is hope from some of the participants that the United States could ratify the high seas treaty if it comes to fruition, say Karan. But no one is holding their breath for that. Kalas says the goal is that the treaty, once completed, would be widely supported, although it remains to be seen how many countries will sign on. "If only 40 countries ratify it, that wouldn't make it as strong of an agreement as if all the United Nation's 193 nations ratified the agreement," she said.

But there's a fine line between having an agreement that's universally supported and one that establishes concrete conservation actions and protections.

"Our concern is that in trying to get everyone in the tent as it were, we're going to wind up with a status-quo agreement," said Karan. "As much as we want a treaty, we want one that will make concrete change on the water."

And it's worth remembering, we're talking about a lot of water. When the next session convenes, she said, "states will decide the ocean's fate."

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

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Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

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The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.