Protecting Earth’s Last Frontier

In 1962, John Glenn relayed this message to mission control when his pioneering flight on the Friendship 7 spacecraft passed across Western Australia at night: “The lights show up very well. Thank everyone for turning them on, will you?” 


If he looked down from space today he might no longer see just the lights of our cities but the many lights of fishing boats. These lights can be so dense that they visibly outline the outer part of the South American continental shelf and entire seas in Asia. 

These lights are from fishers using light to lure squid. This intense activity symbolizes the broader plight of our oceans. The imposing footprint of humanity has advanced from our shores and into the high seas, the ocean waters beyond national jurisdiction. This footprint damages and depletes almost everything in its path. 

With the depletion of the cod fishery and so many other coastal fish stocks worldwide, the fishing industry has turned to the high seas to exploit their resources. Fishing operations are now targeting the seamounts, oceanic ridges and plateaus of the deep ocean beyond national jurisdiction, where ownership and responsibility do not lie with any nation. 

In the course of a decade or more, we have caused significant damage to largely unknown ecosystems, depleted species and probably doomed many others to extinction. Every day, commercial fishing fleets dispatched primarily from just 11 nations venture onto the high seas to fish the deep ocean with seabed trawls. 

They deploy massive gear with names like “canyon buster” that indicate the sheer scales involved and the damage they inflict. Everything along their path, from ancient corals and sponges to 250-year-old fish, is stripped away and caught in their nets. In a single trawl, lumps of sponges, corals and other species, together weighing as much as 10,000 pounds, can be removed. What is left is truly a stark, sterile, undersea desert. 

The high seas are very special. It is here where you can find dense groupings of animals that derive their energy from sources other than the sun around volcanic vents on the deep sea floor. It is only here where you can find areas still free from introduced species, as in the seas around Antarctica. And it is here where you can find living organisms that are more than 8,000 years old, like many of the massive deep-sea corals. 

But what really sets the high seas apart from all other areas we know is the overwhelming lack of protection for any of this natural heritage. 

A United Nations meeting this week finally put the high seas on the map and on the agenda. Government officials from around the world gathered together with scientists, representatives from the fishing sector, conservation groups and other stakeholders to discuss conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in the high seas, covering 64 percent of the Earth’s surface. 

They need to move quickly. Given the fragility of these environments, we simply do not have the luxury of time, but we can act before it is too late. 

As we continue to build our understanding of the oceans and life within, we must establish marine protected areas that extend beyond just the areas we know today to be valuable or threatened. 

We must place biodiversity conservation at the center of ocean governance, build the precautionary approach into the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and ensure that every activity in these areas beyond national jurisdiction – be it fishing, mining, transportation, tourism or research – is conducted in a sustainable manner that is fair to present and future generations. 

We must recognize that all of the geographical, geological and biological parts of the oceans are interrelated, interdependent and equal one tremendously significant ecosystem whole. 

Right now, we have this opportunity to prevent the extinction of countless species and ecosystems that are only just being discovered, let alone understood. Now is the time to protect our last undiscovered wilderness, the world’s final frontier – the high seas. 



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