Preserving Living Marine Resources:
Havens on the High Seas

by James T. Carlton and Claudia E. Mills

A Speech Presented by Jim Carlton at the
University of Washington School of Marine Affairs
25 th Anniversary Celebration, Seattle
Thursday, May 7, 1998

Good morning. We are honored to be here.

This is an extraordinary time in human history to be considering the fate, at the hands of human exploitation, of the world's oceans and its living marine resources.

At less than 600 days from the close of the 20th century, we are poised at the heart of a compelling dichotomy: whether on the one hand we carry on and complete our thorough scouring of the world's seas -- under the constant hope that we can convince ourselves that now, trust us, now we really know how to extract and manage wisely the sea's fisheries -- to name but one resource -- or whether, on the other hand, we become serious about preserving significant regions of the globe before increasing human population pressures make such attempts futile at best.

It is not just the Sea that is all Around Us -- the catastrophic warnings are all around us as well, as eloquently set forth in these past few months and years by a flood tide of dedicated workers. We address a sea of experts in this room this morning when we note the compelling global fisheries statistics -- clear data that speak to the deep, continuing decline of fisheries resources as the pressure for extraction deepens every day. The public learned only three months ago in the pages of Science of the work of Daniel Pauly and colleagues -- that in the past 45 years alone, using 1950 as a baseline -- 1950 -- humans have been fishing down the marine food chain to lower trophic levels -- to the point that there has been a significant shift down to utilizing the more abundant fish that feed on plankton -- giving a false first signal of increasing total fish catches before the inexorable decline. -- And yet to consider 1950 as a baseline is, in and of itself, an extraordinary thing, when one realizes that there are fisheries reports going back to the Middle Ages, and when the decline of the fisheries resources in the Gulf of Maine -- from overfishing -- was a major 19th century issue. Clearly then even these new analyses are underestimates of the scale of human impact on the sea.

And so what are we waiting for?

Are we waiting for arguments that fisheries can be managed so well in the near future -- either by scientists or by the government, or by some struggling matrimony of both -- that the insistent concept of "no take zones," a concept now cascading around the world, is a flawed and unnecessary one? -- That we can explain why 9 out of 10 swordfish now captured are juveniles who have never spawned? -- That we can explain to future generations why we have permitted bluefin tuna breeding populations to fall nearly 90 percent in the past 180 months? "Do we," to quote Fairfield Osborn in his marvelous book "Our Plundered Planet" -- published in1948 -- "Do we need another catastrophic warning from nature to stir us to further action?"

It is worth pausing here to say a few words about Living Marine Resources -- an often handsome way of describing things that we hope are edible -- and the concept of Marine Biological Diversity. The world -- our world this morning being the ocean -- is a diverse place, we suppose -- although we have no comparative way of knowing this, since we only have an "n" of "1" inhabited planet at the moment. And here we face another dichotomy: we don't know very much about what's out there in the oceans, and we don't know very much about how much we've really lost in the past one thousand years.

How diverse is the ocean? -- diverse in terms of genes, in terms of species, in terms of habitats and communities and ecosystems? There is no global data base, or encyclopedia, of marine genetic diversity, no global encyclopedia of marine organisms, no global encyclopedia of marine habitats and communities and ecosystems. Thus, one might argue, without such masterful compendia, it's hard to appreciate what we know and, equally importantly, what might be disappearing, or what has already disappeared.

There are, of course, with every passing month, fewer and fewer scientists who could produce such an encyclopedia, as there are fewer and fewer scientists every month who can identify the living marine organisms that make up the living marine resources. Why we support, foster, encourage, and fund a system that is designed to lead to the demise of the natural history, biogeography, and systematics of marine organisms -- knowledge that is the very basis of understanding of our living marine resources -- is a mystery -- or, even more seriously, the Achilles Heel of marine resource management that historians of science will only marvel at 100 years from now.

We stopped systematically describing the species in the ocean before even a fraction of the species were described -- the embarrassing and inevitable result being that most of the animals and plants in the oceans are unknown to science in any substantive way if at all. These are not only obscure worms in deep sea muds -- our apologies to any worm people in the audience -- but also include organisms ranging from thousands of undescribed species of beautiful seaslugs in tropical lagoons, to whales known only from a specimen or two washed ashore. The oceans are big indeed if we can still miss a whale out there. It should make us feel small.

Second, despite what we do not know, we surely know that we have lost much, even if that too is hard to quantify -- but this does not mean that protection is by any means too late. There are still plenty of metaphorical seahorses in Neptune's barn -- we have to be bold enough, as I will describe shortly, to simply walk up and close the doors.

In the year 998 -- 1000 years ago -- the coastal ocean was a great deal more genetically diverse, but we have eliminated so many individual populations of clams, crabs, mammals, birds, and fish, that it's hard to grasp the scale of the watering down of the ocean's genomic library.

In the year 998 the coastal ocean was also a great deal more diverse in terms of habitats, but we have replaced much of the world's shoreline -- and thus a good deal of the world's coastal biota -- with walls, dikes, channels, piers, docks, soil, rocks, concrete, asphalt, bridges, shrimp ponds, and a plethora of other human-generated creations.

And in the year 998, there must have been more species in the sea. For reasons that we need not belabor here, the academic majority has never asked how many modern species have become extinct in the seas, although it's a common question for the land. Late in the game we are now beginning to think it would be good to know more about ocean extinction -- that it would have been good to have had a field of endeavor, all these years, that we might have called Marine Environmental History.

So what? So what that we have lost genetic diversity in the sea? So what that we have lost habitat diversity in the sea? So what that we have lost an unknown number of species in the sea?

A number of our colleagues have produced in these past few years numerous fine books and monographs going into great detail about the value of biological diversity. It is important to note, in recounting some of these values, that "good" diversity is not necessarily a lot of species and "bad" diversity is not a few species. San Francisco Bay is not now the richer, nor is it better, for having 250 more species than it had in 1850. Rather, the values of biological diversity are many -- and a good deal more complex than simply counting heads.

Maintaining biological diversity means the preservation of the aboriginal construct -- to be able to see how the natural world works as a result of evolution and fine-tuning, and to study that world without the rapid addition or deletion of species that most marine communities -- except perhaps those on the high seas -- have ignominiously suffered in very short order. By understanding how nature is structured -- absent human disturbance and modification -- we become better predictors of what will happen when we do perturb the natural world. And of course there are many other values as well, ranging from the biomedical to the aesthetic, from the edible to scientific, and, importantly, to the unknown -- for here we would be presumptuous to assume that after hardly more than 100 years of really serious biological and ecological investigation of the ocean, that we have deduced the entire importance of the original web, that of ocean communities.

We are not making an idealistic or emotional appeal. The world has been chock-a-block full of humans for an awfully long time, and it is naive to wish for a world without people. But we can surely wish to preserve certain areas where humans will no longer mess around -- not in a modified way, not in a regulated way, not in a sustainable extraction way -- but simply not mess around at all. Period.

Which brings us to this morning's argument.

We have on paper numerous -- indeed perhaps innumerable -- marine reserves, preserves, and sanctuaries, the majority well-embedded in coastal regions that have suffered the slings and arrows of human destruction for decades and centuries.

But we seem to have no such regions on the high seas, which, despite perturbations already in place and ongoing, are perhaps the least disturbed regions of the ocean, especially when compared to the coastal zone.

We thus need Havens on the High Seas. We must establish an international system of marine protected areas on the open ocean, where the human element is removed -- where human interference and disturbance are prevented and prohibited from the water surface to the ocean bottom. These should be "no take" areas, in perpetuity, for all marine resources, living and otherwise. These should be "no depository" areas, where, for example, the burial of radioactive waste under the deep seabed, as newly proposed again by Charles Hollister and Steven Nadis in the January 1998 issue of Scientific American, is prohibited (and a proposal that we note in passing was summarized by the Scientific American's Table of Contents copy editor in that issue as an idea that "horrifies some environmentalists," but which was rendered by an apparently different headline writer, some 60 pages later, as an idea that "troubles some environmentalists").

Are there challenges and issues associated with establishing international reserves for the open ocean? Are there enforcement and monitoring issues?

Of course. But desire and resolve are the better parts of enforcement, not remoteness or accessibility. One cannot, technically and legally, collect marine animals and plants from the tidepools of the southern California Coastal Marine Reserve system -- and yet of course people do it all the time, since there is little desire or resolve to enforce those rules. Accessibility of law enforcement officers to the site has nothing to do with the lack of enforcement.

Are there legal issues?

Of course. The 1982 Montego Bay Law of the Sea Treaty, and its 1958 predecessor, the Geneva Convention on the High Seas, set the open ocean aside as a global commons, and even the United States acknowledges that the Law of the Sea Treaty, with the exception of course of seabed mining, represents in large part customary international law. Thus the open ocean is open to all nations, and as it is subject to no state's sovereignty, the classic high seas' rights obtain: freedom of navigation, freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines, freedom to fly over -- and, of course, freedom of fishing. The tradition of freedom of the high seas has its roots in an era when there were too few people to seriously violate the oceans -- but that era ended some 150 years ago with the increase of global whaling. Eighteenth century concepts of the freedom of the ocean are simply irresponsible today. There are far too many people, far too many economic interests, far too much bathing in anonymity, to declare the larger part of the world to be a commons that can be pillaged without accountability or culpability.

And are there cost issues? Of course -- but these are endemic to the conservation movement. Fifty years ago, Osborn observed that less than one percent of the federal budget is spent for conservation. We are doing no better today (we thank Amy Mathews-Amos and Elliott Norse for this present-day calculation).

The time is more than ripe for mid-ocean waters to receive international environmental protection. And the seeds of discontent that they are not already protected are all around us. Tundi Agardy's magnificent book on marine protected areas and ocean conservation, published last year, emphasizes that "the integration of management and coordination of governance [in the sea] should extend to ... the high seas areas." Martin Willison of Dalhousie University and colleagues have proposed that a 10 kilometer wide no-take zone -- an "international peace park" -- be established on either side of The Hague Line -- the boundary between the Gulf of Maine waters of Canada and the United States -- and a line that passes into continental slope waters. Discussions are also afoot on setting aside seamounts as ocean reserves. And Daniel Pauly's final six words in his Science paper are simple ones: "large no-take marine protected areas". The pressures are building.

The open oceans are now recognized as critical to the regulation of global climate -- a role, one could argue, so profound as to constitute a sufficient rationale in and of itself to set large regions aside. The open oceans provide new discoveries on a regular basis -- ranging from critically underestimated productivity to the discovery of hydrothermal vents. We would be presumptuous indeed to assume that we have found the last unique habitat in the ocean. And the open oceans represent the last great region of the world to protect in a way that we rarely do -- since on a normal basis we institute retroactive protection, long after human society has rendered a habitat an unrecognizable shadow of its former self.

Much work needs to be done on Open Ocean Reserve design -- where High Seas Reserves should be located, how big they should be to be effective, what role they may play as refugium and as buffer. In this regard, we appreciate and note the sage comments in Gary Allison, Jane Lubchenco, and Mark Carr's February 1998 Ecological Applications essay, "Marine Reserves are Necessary but not Sufficient for Marine Conservation" -- and we second their motion that since population replenishment and chemical input in the ocean are often processes that take place external to the reserve boundary, vastly greater attention must be paid to a more holistic view.

And one could argue that we simply lack the information to make such decisions. If we add upon this the dizzying array of political, cultural, and economic differences that characterize the nations of the world -- and the resulting dizzying array of goals and objectives and desires -- a stage is set for decades of debate and argument. There is still time to establish oceanic reserves, but if we delay, and busy ourselves with these endless delay tactics, the long arm of resource extraction technology -- the outward anonymous manifestation of global multinational economics -- will surely catch up. And the history of human endeavor on land tells us the inevitable results.

Fishing is a good thing, and we would not presume to argue otherwise. Fishing is a very natural and indeed reasonable thing for humans to do, whether one makes a living out of it, or sees it as a contemplative exercise that is not mortal for the party at either end of the pole. But we need not be greedy -- but clearly, with less than 1% of the world's fishing grounds under a complete fishing ban, we have been greedy. To ask for something more than 1% seems modest indeed.

We note in closing that an International Year of the Ocean, established by the UN and that we are now celebrating, is hardly enough. One year set aside to celebrate the Oceans is, in the retrospect of but a few months, perhaps embarrassing. One suspects that the likes of Ed "Doc" Ricketts (whose answer to the question, "Where are the sardines?" was, "In the cans") would be perplexed by such a notion. Rather, we need an International Century of the Ocean. We need an International Millennium of the Ocean. It's time to shed our pleasantries, it's time to shed our token nods, it's time to shed politely worded United Nations declarations that satisfy the needs of carefully worded global politics.

In short -- it's time for some serious kick-butt stewardship of the oceans.

Jack London wrote in the earlier part of this century,

"... one sits and listens to the perpetual roar [of the sea],
and feels tiny and fragile before this tremendous force ..."

As well we should.

Thank you.


Postscript added after the speech:

Although the "right" fish management policies should be able to accomplish the same goals as open ocean reserves in maintaining or returning fish, invertebrate, and marine mammal populations to sustainable vigor, it is not clear to the authors that we have either the ecological understanding or the collective political will to protect living resource populations through management rather than no-touch reserves. Furthermore, management will have to be extended to include extraction techniques, since methods such as benthic trawling can be extremely damaging to the habitat -- a no-take zone not only preserves the fish stocks but also the habitat. And finally, it is not evident that exemplary fisheries management would be any easier or faster to implement than no-take reserves, so we believe that both concepts should be on the table for consideration, with global ocean health considered to be a top priority issue as we approach the millennium.

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