Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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