As we celebrate World Ocean Day, a conservation tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding. With 70 percent of the world's coastal fish stocks over-exploited
or collapsed and 90 percent of the biggest fish wiped out, we have turned to the deep oceans
in our increasingly relentless and destructive pursuit of the dwindling supply of seafood
The high seas that lie beyond the 200-mile exclusive zone of each coastal nation represent Earth's true last frontier a vast, unexplored, and virtually lawless region that covers about 64 percent of the world's oceans. The same industrial fleets that have depleted and destroyed so many continental shelf fisheries are now churning through this virgin, deep ocean wilderness, pillaging the resources and despoiling everything in their path.
Each day, fleets from a dozen or more nations scour the deep oceans with scant regulation and little oversight. They target undersea mountain ranges, oceanic ridges, and plateaus that provide the richest habitats for fish and other marine life. Massive seabed trawls with names like "canyon buster" are deployed, indicating the sheer scale involved and the damage inflicted on the delicate undersea habitat. The nets, sometimes mounted on heavy rollers, are dragged across the seabed, strip-mining everything in their path. It's the equivalent of bulldozers flattening entire forests to catch songbirds and squirrels.
Everything from ancient corals and sponges to 200-year-old fish is caught in their nets. In a single trawl, as much as five tons of marine life can be scooped up to capture a relatively small number of high-value fish. The rest is bycatch that is simply thrown away, dead or dying. What remains, deep and unseen, is the marine version of a lifeless, sterile desert.
Ironically, hunter-gatherer societies have harvested wildlife sustainably for tens of thousands of years without destroying the forests and plains that produced their prey. Today's indigenous peoples still do. The indiscriminately careless techniques used by today's high-tech, high seas hunter-gatherers, however, are completely unsustainable and that's the tragedy. They are destroying the habitat that produces and replenishes the resource.
Beneath the waves, the high seas are out of sight and out of mind. We forget what is at stake, and we seem not to care. We safeguard about 12 percent of the world's most biologically important lands as national parks, reserves, corridors, or other forms of protection, but only a fraction of 1 percent of the oceans.
The high seas have become a marine version of the Wild West, lawless and ungoverned regions where fishery freebooters plunder at will. Given the fragility of these environments, we simply do not have the luxury of time, but we can act before it is too late. During the week of June 12, the United Nations will consider proposals on how to protect the deep oceans within the framework of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. I urge the Bush administration to support the imposition of a moratorium on deep ocean bottom trawling as a pivotal first step.
We need to establish marine protected areas and ensure management improvements across the high seas. We need to make certain that every activity be it fishing, scientific research, minerals exploration, energy development, bio-prospecting, and others are conducted in a sustainable manner now, and far into the future.
My sincere hope is that the next generation will look back on ours and say two things: We were really smart and realized what needed to be done for marine conservation, and we made the right moves and acted before it was too late. At stake is preventing the extinction of countless species and ecosystems that we are only just discovering, let alone beginning to understand. The next few years will be critical in deciding whether we deliver or fail. Let's act now to protect the last, vast wilderness on Earth.