The High Seas Shouldn't Be Like the Wild West

They need a good lawyer.

Photographer: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Does a cure for cancer lurk in the ocean's darkest depths? The answer to that question is one of many reasons the world needs a new treaty governing the high seas.

The high seas -- any part of the ocean more than 200 miles from a coast and beyond national jurisdiction -- account for more than half the ocean's surface area and generate nearly half the global ocean's biological productivity. Yet they are only lightly governed by the 320 articles and nine annexes of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Talks on updating the 1982 treaty, which was bolstered by a 1995 agreement on migratory fish stocks, opened last month.

A lot has happened over the last few decades. The world's fisheries are under greater strain. As bigger fleets range further afield, more of their catch is coming from the high seas, threatening the ability of stocks to rejuvenate. More than 15 percent of the world's catch is already taken illegally, by rogue trawlers flying flags of convenience and using drift nets and other destructive methods.

Science has brought the role of the high seas in mitigating climate change into even sharper relief. Unfortunately, pollution is endangering the microorganisms that help the ocean to absorb carbon. Meanwhile, no rules exist for potential geoengineering projects -- seeding the oceans with iron, for instance -- to reduce greenhouse gases in the air.

Then there is the burgeoning field of bioprospecting. Scientists can now explore new realms, such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents with temperatures ranging from 300 to 600 degrees Celsius (572 to 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit) and ecosystems that rely on chemosynthesis. Marine organisms have already yielded compounds used to shrink tumors, block pain and treat Alzheimer's. But while clear rules exist for mining the seabed for minerals, none do for high-seas bioprospecting -- a source of contention between the developed and developing worlds, as well as an obstacle to scientific research.

The UN talks will take up such challenges, but things move slowly when more than 100 nations and several dozen intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations are involved.

In the meantime, nations can target illegal fishing on the high seas by agreeing to uphold UN inspection standards for foreign fishing vessels that call on their ports (as Cuba has just done). They can build on the model of the Sargasso Sea Commission, which monitors and protects a unique high-seas ecosystem. They can join the two dozen World Trade Organization members that want to curb subsidies that encourage overfishing -- an initiative that needs the support of China, whose 70,000-strong fishing fleet has made it the world's biggest producer of fish. And of course they are still responsible for waters within 200 miles of their coast and can take better care of their fisheries.

In "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," Jules Verne wrote: "Nature's creative power is far beyond man's instinct of destruction." It's a comforting thought, and maybe even a correct one; scientists now say up to 10 million species may live in the deep seas. Still, it's a hypothesis better left untested.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.