The high seas: It is one of the last great ecological frontiers on Earth, one of the few we all share; the open ocean; the two-thirds of the planet's salt water outside of any national jurisdiction. You can guess what that means. In classic tragedy-of-the-commons style, the world's fishing nations have been hauling sea life out of these waters while avoiding any responsibility for oversight. In the last few years, we have begun to fish out high seas species and tear up ocean floor habitat faster than we can explore this most remote region of the Earth.
The greatest direct threat to high seas ecosystems is bottom trawling. (Bottom trawling, as marine conservationists and readers of this blog will know, is an incredibly destructive form of fishing. If you need a lesson, see our website.) In the past decade, industrial bottom trawlers have been advancing farther and farther from shore, driven by an insatiable public demand for fish and by the depleted fisheries in their wake. The problem, now, is that trawlers are dragging their nets over areas of the ocean bottom that we have yet to even explore - but which, we are finding out, are home to ecosystems as rich and diverse as any on land. Seamounts are the best example. The floor of the open ocean, far from the flat, barren moonscape we once imagined it to be, is riven with canyons and gorges and crisscrossed with chains of underwater mountains, or seamounts. Along their slopes, where ocean currents move faster and carry higher densities of nutrients, life thrives. And rather unusual life. Some seamount fish, like the orange roughy, live for 150 years. Slow-growing corals and sponges may hold great promise as pharmaceutical agents. Many of the species recently discovered on seamounts are completely new to science.
The trawlers, unfortunately, are beating the researchers to the seamounts, and the world is at risk of losing valuable ecosystems, not to mention commercially valuable fish populations, to their voracious nets. The severity of the threat has inspired a movement to stop it. An umbrella group of environmental organizations, operating as the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, has been pushing for a temporary halt to high-seas trawling. The time-out would give scientists a chance to develop a more comprehensive assessment of the situation, and the world a chance to put some kind of rational governance system in place.
Unfortunately, the coalition is up against formidable opposition. At this meeting of the UN, critics of the moratorium - led by Iceland and the EU (particularly Spain) - won out.
Not to be discouraged, the coalition will be working to raise awareness about high seas trawling over the coming year. If the upwelling of support in the past few months is any indication of the movement's momentum, the UN General Assembly may vote differently in 2005.