We know more about outer space than we do about the deep sea, or so the saying goes.

But, with climate change, overfishing, pollution and the general harm wrought by human activity, campaigners are worried the ocean will die before we have a chance to discover it.

For the past two weeks, discussions have been taking place here in New York to try to work out a legal framework to protect the high seas. That is the sea beyond national jurisdictions that is supposed to belong to everyone and no one.

And it is vast, comprising two-thirds of the world’s oceans or nearly half of the surface of the planet. So far, only 1% of it is protected by existing regulations.

The treaty is designed to turn 30% of the world’s oceans into marine sanctuaries by 2030, where fishing and seabed mining are banned.

Protecting the oceans might seem like something everyone can get behind. After all, they sustain life on earth.

The so-called high seas – outside of national jurisdictions – consist of two-thirds of the world's oceans

But, no, this is the United Nations, where national interests, corporate lobbying and geopolitical rivalries frequently get in the way of consensus-building.

The current wrangling over the text for the High Seas Treaty, formally known as the Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), is no exception.

Talks have been limping on for years. The last conference, in August 2022, collapsed with no deal, and the frustration here is palpable.

When I arrived at Conference Room 2 on the ground floor of the United Nations HQ, delegates and campaigners were emerging from the closed-door morning session looking a little tired. But they sounded a note of "cautious optimism" that an agreement was finally in sight.

"Right now, there are a number of things we can’t do on the high seas because there is no legal framework, for example, for marine protected areas," Nichola Clark, an ocean governance expert with Pew Charitable Trusts, told RTÉ News.

"Within our own national waters, we are able to protect those parts of the oceans that are really important because, maybe they have incredible coral reefs or are important breeding grounds for certain animals or migratory species."

Ms Clark noted that, in two-third of the ocean, we are not able to create protected areas.

"That is one of the key gaps that this agreement is hoping to address," she said.

The question of who is going to pay for the set up and administration of conservation areas has been a sticking point, and one that pits the wealthier countries of the Global North against the developing Global South.

And it’s not just about the money upfront, it’s also about how to divide up any future revenue from the high seas.

The Portuguese man o' war is a marine hydrozoan found in the Atlantic and Indian oceans

Drugs from the deep: Scientists explore ocean frontiers

Scientists believe undiscovered sea creatures, minerals and plants, known as "marine genetic resources", might hold the key to breakthrough medicines and therefore windfall profits for pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetic companies.

Researchers recently discovered skin cancer-busting properties in an Antarctic Ocean sea squirt, for example, while a biological compound, isolated from a marine sponge, is in development as a potential cure for HIV.

This kind of sea exploration is largely carried out by wealthy nations that have the resources and expertise to undertake expensive expeditions.

But whatever they find out there should benefit everyone, representatives from poorer nations argue.

"Many of the drugs we have in circulation today originally came from something in the environment and, so far, we have only explored coastal areas and land," Rebecca Helm an assistant professor of environmental science at Georgetown University, told RTÉ News.

"Almost half of earth is currently beyond national jurisdiction, so if you think of all the amazing medical discoveries we have on hand today and multiply those by the area and depth of the high seas – that gives you a sense of the things that may be out there," she said.

"Every time I go to the high seas, I see something I have never seen before."

This week, as negotiations intensified, Greenpeace took a swipe at member states for failing to agree.

"Negotiations have been going around in circles, progressing at a snail’s pace, and this is reflected in the new draft treaty text. It is far from where it should be as we enter the endgame of these negotiations," said Dr Laura Meller, a campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic.

"Negotiations must accelerate and Global North countries like the UK, US and European Union member states must seek compromises instead of quibbling over minor points," she added.

Jane Fonda delivered a candid message to delegates at the UN on the treaty

The campaign group singled out China, which has key strategic interests in future deep-sea exploration as well as a giant fisheries industry.

"China must urgently reimagine its role at these negotiations. At COP15, China showed global leadership but, at these negotiations, it has been a difficult party. China has an opportunity to transform global ocean governance and broker, instead of break, a landmark deal on this new Ocean Treaty," Dr Meller added.

Delegates told RTÉ News that China had been "obstructionist" during the first week of negotiations, but appeared ready to compromise as the talks progressed.

Indeed, many of the entrenched positions of member states appeared to crumble as the week wore on.

"There’s a realisation that we are in the end game now and that the sacred cows can be traded and that red lines can turn pink," a senior European delegate told RTÉ describing the deal as "closer than ever".

But will the sacred-cow trading be enough to get the text agreed by close of play today?

Activists are pulling out all the stops, from ocean-themed light displays projected onto the Manhattan skyline to the star power of actress Jane Fonda, who delivered a candid message to delegates at the UN.

"Even dogs don’t poop in their kennel because they know that the kennel provides security and a home for them," she said.

"We’re pooping in our kennel," she added.