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Important and Overlooked: Protecting Open Water

The open ocean may be vast but it’s not limitless.

Under that glassy expanse, the pelagic environment is more than empty blue water. It’s streaked and spotted with migratory thoroughfares and breeding grounds for marine mammals, turtles, fish, and seabirds. Thousands of miles from shore, the sea still thrums with life.

Yet there is no unified system in place to protect open water. Most marine reserves today are created and managed by single countries, most often along their coastline, or centered on remote island territories. But what about the ocean that no one owns?

The high seas “are extremely problematic when it comes to protection,” says Lisa Ballance, a marine ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, California and former Chief Scientist of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Cetacean and Ecosystem Research Cruises in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Since “no one owns them, coming to an agreement on their management is extremely difficult.”

So if the high seas are so hard to protect, why bother? From the surface, open ocean looks “big and empty,” Ballance says. Out there, “you see a vast expanse of water and a vast expanse of sky.”

But beneath the surface, it’s a diverse and variable world. Temperature, salinity, and other factors “vary dramatically” between currents, she says. “With some scientific knowledge and equipment, we can very easily see it’s far from homogeneous.”

Many of the animals that we depend on, like tuna and other large fish, as well as protected groups like whales, dolphins, and sea turtles, ride those varied currents to hunt and breed. Endangered loggerhead sea turtles cross over 7,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean, from Japan to Mexico, in epic migrations that cross international waters.

To protect the turtles, even when they’re out in unregulated territory, NOAA developed TurtleWatch, a new, moving approach to conservation on the high seas. The loggerheads pass through a hazard zone near Hawaii, where they risk entanglement in fishermens’ longlines. But it turns out that loggerheads prefer water temperatures below 65.5 degrees Fahrenheit. So using satellites, NOAA scientists track temperatures in the North Pacific, and update a map every three days. By reading the map, fishermen avoid loggerheads, even outside of marine reserves.

TurtleWatch is an innovative approach to protecting a migratory species that brings fisheries and conservationists together. So how else are we protecting the high seas, and why haven’t we done more, sooner?

A loggerhead turtle escapes a net. NOAA
A loggerhead turtle escapes a net. NOAA.

Historically, most protected areas were small and close to shore (partly a consequence of national regulation). But in the last decade, conservationists have increasingly turned their attention to international waters, governed by the United Nations. The high seas cover half of the planet, yet remain largely unregulated, explains Peggy Kalas, coordinator of the High Seas Alliance, a partnership of 32 nongovernmental organizations and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Without centralized marine protection, Kalas worries that advancing technology and unchecked exploitation will spoil our shared resources.

“The piecemeal and fragmented approach to oceans governance has led to overlapping oversight in some areas, yet huge gaps in other areas,” she says. “A global solution is the only answer to protect a global resource.”

The UN is currently working to develop a new marine biodiversity treaty, with input from members of the High Seas Alliance. The hope, Kalas explains, is to protect both species and whole ecosystems on the high seas. Because currents move and some animals migrate, the Alliance hopes that the UN will take a broad approach, including both place-based and more dynamic conservation strategies.

“One of the most significant things we did was to protect large areas of open land, like Yellowstone through the National Parks system,” Kalas says. “We now need to do this for the ocean.”

Members of the High Seas Alliance meet in the corridors of the United Nations.
Members of the High Seas Alliance meet in the corridors of the United Nations.

Amy G. McDermott is a science journalist and editor. Her work has appeared in Science, Discover, and Natural History, among others. She founded the online science magazine Hawkmoth and tweets from @HawkmothMag