Blame Iceland

Sunday, December 3, 2006

IN A FORM of fishing known as bottom trawling, huge, weighted nets are dragged across the ocean floor, destroying corals and just about everything else in their path. In U.S. waters, the practice is tightly regulated -- and forbidden in certain environmentally sensitive areas. On much of the high seas, however, it's open season. Delicate ecosystems get ravaged with nobody paying attention. The Bush administration, along with several other governments, has been pushing for a moratorium on unregulated trawling on the high seas. Last month, thanks in large part to Iceland, it failed to get that measure.

Iceland did not act alone in preventing a ban: Russia, Japan, China and South Korea joined in. Iceland's embassy, in a statement, said it "strongly objects to claims, made by some environmental organizations, that it was in the forefront of blocking consensus" to ban deep-sea bottom trawling. The denial is disingenuous. In closed-door negotiations, Iceland, along with Russia, took a particularly vocal and aggressive stand against strong action.

Because the arcane rules of high-seas fishing are largely defined by consensus, even small countries that are genuine moral outliers in world attitudes toward oceans can prevent agreement. The result in this case was a mushy resolution that fell far short of what the administration and environmental groups wanted, which in turn is ominous for efforts to protect marine life in international waters. The world's oceans are heading toward environmental collapse, which only bold action will avert. It's hard to imagine that happening if a country that hunts whales and has a population smaller than Washington's can help block a common-sense proposal to safeguard the ecological health of the ocean floor.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company