LOST at Sea

While sharks, elephant seals, and Pacific bluefin tuna on the great predator highway don’t carry passports, or care about sovereignty, the humans in Washington should care about the languishing Law of the Sea treaty.
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While sharks, elephant seals, and Pacific bluefin tuna on the great predator highway don’t carry passports, or care about sovereignty, the humans in Washington should care about the languishing Law of the Sea treaty.

Besides its unfortunate acronym, LOST, how else can you explain the perpetually doomed status of the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea treaty? LOST, first adopted in 1982, would create a uniform set of laws for the sea—governing fishing, piracy, territory, and mining—and an international regulatory body, and has been ratified by 161 countries, leaving the U.S. in the company of 35 naysayers that include North Korea, Iran, and Burundi. It’s unlikely we’ll be joining the rest of the world this year—earlier this month two more Republican senators joined the group of 32 who say it will cost the U.S. its sovereignty.

But in this highly partisan time, LOST has a weird dream team of endorsers: the American Petroleum Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Department of Defense, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, John Kerry, John McCain, Sarah Palin; you get political vertigo just reading the list.

Why the support? Money: U.S. companies have more to gain from signing the treaty than just about anyone else, anywhere. The U.S. coastline, already among the world’s longest, will be extended out 200 miles, effectively granting access to enormous stores of fossil fuels and valuable metals and minerals. The Navy and the Coast Guard support the marine governance aspects of the treaty because it creates enforceable standards of conduct everywhere, from the melting Arctic to territorial conflicts with China.

The most prominent voice against the treaty is that of Donald Rumsfeld, who testified that it is a “sweeping power grab.” He wrote a recent editorial saying that the treaty is “fundamentally incompatible with the basic tenets of capitalism.” He worried that establishing world ownership of the deep seabed could create a similar argument for outer space.

But how do the fish feel? I was thinking about LOST when I found a biography of a Pacific bluefin tuna named “specimen 1002010,” a yard-long fish that crossed the Pacific Ocean three times in two years and apparently liked to winter in Southern California and spend summers near Japan. The wild wanderings of 1002010 can be seen on the interactive map at the Global Tagging of Pelagic (deepwater) Predators project’s website.

At California’s Año Nuevo State Park, a 640-pound elephant seal set off from the beach and made it pretty close to the Aleutians in Alaska before turning around and hauling its great floppy mass back to Año Nuevo. White sharks, which seem to spend their time cruising the coast to bite surfers for Animal Planet programs, turn out to take frequent trips to Hawaii. And then there are the leatherback turtles that commute between California and Indonesia.

Obviously fish don’t carry passports or care about national sovereignty. And with apologies to Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t appear to be capitalists. When you look at the behavior of the fish, it’s clear that they need ocean-wide, if not worldwide, policies to protect and manage them. Being nice to sea turtles on the California coast will not ensure their survival if in fact they spend part of their year in Indonesia.

These observations do not mean that ratifying LOST will make the world right. The global tagging initiative’s research suggests we’ll need to do considerably more than that to keep the leatherback turtles chugging along.

The initiative’s collaborative of researchers spent 10 years tagging and tracking 4,306 critters at the top of the Pacific Ocean’s food chain. The researchers were surprised to find that animals like the elephant seal, which had seemed to be a coastal hanger-on, actually spent a long time far from land. The researchers also found underwater gathering places, like the “shark cafe” between Baja California and Hawaii. To the north, there’s a big east-west fish highway along the boundary between the cooler currents and the warmer ones. (For a summary of what they found, download the Nature paper here.) All of this activity enmeshes the predators with each other and with their prey, the currents, temperatures, and food.

In their report, the researchers say we need policies that treat the oceans as whole ecosystems rather than a set of national boundaries. We also need specific ways of addressing very important spots in the sea so that a watery nursery, for example, could be protected by being designated part of UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage. The predator highway across the sea could be zoned as a conservation corridor. LOST does not look at the ocean as an ecosystem, never mind provide for conservation corridors. LOST’s controls on fish management are written from the standpoint of “optimum utilization” of fish stocks rather than sustaining food webs or avoiding harvests altogether in an effort to protect an environment, according to a report written by the Congressional Research Service.

And when it comes to traveling species like tuna, LOST suggests continuing to use bilateral agreements like those that are already in place. (The U.S. signed a tuna agreement with Costa Rica as far back as 1950.) Which, ironically, means that basically, the U.S. already complies with the terms of LOST in its fishing rules, so from a fishy point of view, the CRS doesn’t believe ratification would change much.

Joining LOST would, though, allow the U.S. to actively negotiate for improved protections for whole ecosystems, and for particular species like whales. From a conservation standpoint LOST is an artifact from a time before concern about climate change, before accurate data like GTOPP, before the collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod fishery, before we became aware of how complex and fragile the sea’s ecosystem is. Still, the U.S. needs to follow Hillary, Condoleezza, and Sarah to ratify it so we can get on with making ocean rules to preserve fish for the future.