THE world's oceans ignore political boundaries. What gets into one country's waters has a tendency to splash up in a neighbor's. American factories in Thailand create pollutants that ocean currents carry to the coast of Vietnam. The zebra mussel, first sucked into the ballast of ships leaving European ports, has invaded the Great Lakes. Issues like these have kept 22 biologists, economists, and international lawyers from the United States and the Soviet Union busy at a cooperative workshop here at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Laboratories. The group's goal is to establish a comprehensive international strategy for protecting the world's oceans. This ``environmental security,'' they say, is just as important as national security.
The workshop, which ended Friday, is part of a two-year collaboration between the Marine Policy Center (MPC) of Woods Hole and the Oceans Section of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The first workshop was held last May in Moscow.
There are different opinions about what environmental security is, says Arthur Gaines, an ocean scientist with MPC, ``but we agree that it involves environmental issues that can be initiated by one nation but have consequences for all nations,'' such as the Exxon Valdez tanker accident.
The danger is that without a clear body of law, when a marine disaster occurs in one country but affects others, there is a likelihood it will impair relations between the two countries.
One of the aims of the project is to have participants co-write a book to fill those gaps. It will lay out broad principles regarding nations' responsibilities and liability, compensation, and the obligation to give timely information about hazardous events. Group Focuses on Array of Concerns
The group is focusing on eight areas and situations: the Arctic, depletion of North Pacific fisheries, land-based pollution of coastal waters, hazardous-cargo transportation in the South Pacific, global warming and the rising of the sea level, nuclear debris, Antarctica, and the Law of the Sea Convention. But even though the two countries are sharing some data previously held secretly, information in some areas remains sketchy.
For example, Dr. Raphael Vartanov, head of the oceans section of INEMO says, ``The problem with nuclear contamination is that we don't have enough information on this subject.'' According to a report by the environmental group Greenpeace, as the result of accidents there are 50 nuclear warheads and eight reactors on the ocean floor. It is not known what effects their presence has had on the oceans.
Convention ratification sought
The Woods Hole participants also aim to provide the US and the Soviet Union with more information about marine environments to encourage their signing of the Law of the Sea convention, the only comprehensive statement of international environmental law as it affects the ocean. Forty-two countries have ratified the convention, which requires ratification by 60 nations to take effect. The Soviet Union has signed, but not ratified, the document. The United States has not signed.
The Soviet Union, says Elena Nikitina, a senior researcher with IMEMO, has been ``reserved'' in establishing a national environmental policy. But since 1988 the country has been catching up. An experiment going on now in 50 regions of the USSR makes polluters pay into a cleanup fund, she says.
Another objective of the study is to identify ways that the US and the USSR can work together to enhance environmental security. As in any collaborative process, there were differences of opinion. In the discussion on depletion of North Pacific fisheries, a Soviet scientist wanted to limit the discussion to the Bering Sea. The Americans wanted to expand the boundary to encompass the whole eco-geographical area that extends to the Aleutian Islands, where marine mammals and sea birds breed.