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

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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