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Senate's high seas dilemma

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Mar 14, 2023
Senator Robert Menendez

Sen. Robert Menendez. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

🌊 The U.S. is trying to promote global marine life conservation, but it's likely to face an uphill battle ratifying treaties for protecting the ocean.

Why it matters: The Senate’s failure to approve the decades-old Law of the Sea is holding back President Biden's global ocean protection efforts.

How it works: The U.S. remains unable to ratify the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, a global nautical agreement espousing a common set of principles and guidelines for the planet’s oceans.

  • The U.S. is now helping to bring the world together on a new high seas treaty intended specifically to protect ocean marine life, but being behind on the previous agreement raises concerns that there could be a logjam delaying implementation of a new pact.
  • This inability to ratify the old sea treaty has already held Biden back from engaging on global deep-sea mining negotiations despite a push by environmentalists.

Between the lines: Some senators like Lisa Murkowski are eager to ratify the 1982 treaty, but Senate Foreign Relations chairman Robert Menendez doesn’t expect that to happen any time soon.

  • Speaking with Axios as he waited for the Senate subway, Menendez said there’s “not yet” a sense that enough Republicans support ratification to overcome the 67-vote threshold on implementing worldwide agreements.
  • “Our friends on the other side of the aisle see a treaty as an abdication of sovereignty,” he said. “If I got the sense there was real support on the Republican side I would bring it back for consideration.”
  • Menendez also said bringing the treaty up in the Senate could have unintended political side effects, including potential political counterprogramming from the House GOP.
  • “They might weigh in in ways that are helpful,” he said. “Or harmful.”

Yes, but: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a longtime oceans advocate, said the Hill's growing anti-China sentiment could play into how lawmakers think about these treaties.

  • "I think we've seen a new appreciation of the danger for American fisheries when international predators are at work on the high seas, particularly Chinese vessels," Whitehouse said.
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