Turtles, sharks and tuna: why we’re working to protect our ocean
By Sebastián Rodríguez
About a third of the world’s fisheries have crashed, and the rest are in bad shape.
It’s a stark reality that affects not just our own food security, but the health and future of the many creatures that travel through the farthest reachs of our ocean.
Out in the high seas, far beyond view of our coasts, sharks and whales glide through the deep blue water; a lone sea turtle pops her head up for air, catching a glimpse of the birds soaring overhead.
Far from national boundaries, and protected by no country, these deep waters are rich in biodiversity—sustaining everything from corals to mammals to the fish we eat.
Despite their importance, these international waters—and the life within them—are at risk. A lack of coordinated oversight has led to overfishing, illegal fishing, pollution, and habitat destruction. Marine life struggles with all these stressors—and a warming climate.
A unique refuge
Through their interactions with Latin America’s coasts, the high seas form rich environments called outcropping systems.
Near Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Brazil, these nutrient-rich waters feed species of great ecological and commercial importance.
Within them live the mahi mahi, yellowfin and bluefin tuna, sailfish, swordfish, and others on which the fishing industry—and therefore much of the region’s economy—depends.
In fact, deep-sea fishing for tuna and similar species in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans generates more than $1.2 billion in revenue a year, according to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.
In the Eastern Tropical Pacific, it’s estimated that a single hammerhead shark generates as much as $1.6 million dollars in tourism throughout its 35-year lifespan, according to a study by the University of Costa Rica.
Beyond the economic value they provide to humans, the high seas also hold tremendous value for the species that depend on them.
Five species of sea turtle, most of which are threatened, migrate through these waters to lay their eggs on coastal beaches. The outcropping systems also provide essential breeding grounds for blue and humpback whales.
Nobody governs the high seas
According to a 2014 Global Ocean Commission report, the degradation of these important ecosystems is driving the entire ocean to the point of collapse. In fact, 12 percent of the species living in the Eastern Tropical Pacific are in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Current international legislation has gaps that leave these offshore waters unprotected, further endangering the marine life that lives in them, explains Gladys Martínez, AIDA’s Senior Marine Attorney.
The greatest current need is to create marine protected areas, off-limits to commercial activity. We also need an authority that mandates environmental impact assessments for activities on the high seas—something that was not contemplated when the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the most sweeping agreement governing world oceans, was created.
Our hope is that a new international treaty convened by the United Nations General Assembly will soon fill these gaps. Representatives from governments around the world have already had several successful meetings to pave the way for its negotiation.
We’re working as part of the High Seas Alliance—a coalition of 32 NGOs—to ensure the voice of Latin American civil society is heard in the creation of this new treaty, which will protect the deepest reaches of our ocean far into the future.