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 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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