Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


LOST at Sea

(Pablo H Caridad/Shutterstock)

LOST at Sea

• July 30, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(Pablo H Caridad/Shutterstock)

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.

Lisa Margonelli
Lisa Margonelli is the author of Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank. She is currently working on a book about termites.

More From Lisa Margonelli

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.