High-seas fisheries: troubled waters, tangled governance, and recovery prospects.

Author:Worm, Boris

Global fisheries are in a perceived state of crisis. Despite growing technological effort and an unprecedented global expansion of fisheries, total landings (85-100 million MT per year) have stagnated and probably entered a period of slow decline. This trend may destabilize ocean ecosystems and undermine world seafood supplies, which provide the major source of protein for 2.3bn people, and international cooperation to address this issue has been slow. This is particularly true for high-seas fisheries that occur in international waters encompassing some 61% of the world's ocean. These have been plagued by a fragmented and weak legal framework, poor enforcement of existing regulations, and the problem of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishings. On the positive side, individual States have introduced measures that have been successful in recovering overexploited resources. Turning the tide on the high se, as requires strong government cooperation to enforce conservative harvest levels (quotas), as well as measures that protect biological diversity, such as protected areas, bycatch regulations, and the conservation of critical habitats. This article provides a short overview of the biological, institutional and legal dimensions of high-seas fisheries. It emphasizes that this is a unique time in history, where unprecedented awareness, scientific advances, and a growing willingness to collaborate internationally are setting the stage for a dynamic transformation of high-seas governance. What is missing is a visionary master plan on how to integrate fragmented efforts towards the common goal of sustainable development on the high seas.

Malgre un effort technologique et une expansion sans precedent des peches mondiales, celles-ci passent pour etre en etat de crise: les prises totales (85-100 millions Mt par an) stagnent et sont probablement entrees dans une periode de lent declin. Cette tendance risque de destabiliser les ecosystemes oceaniques et de miner les reserves mondiales de poissons et de fruits de mer, qui constituent la principale source de proteines pour 2,3 milliards de personnes. La cooperation internationale visant a resoudre ce probleme s'opere lentement. Cela est particulierement vrai dans le cas de la peche en haute mer, pratiquee dans les eaux internationales, qui representent quelque 61% des oceans du monde. Elle est caracterisee par un cadre, juridique fragmente et faible, une mauvaise application des reglementations existantes et le probleme de la peche illegale, non declaree et non reglementee. Sur une note plus positive, certains Etats ont mis en en place des mesures qui ont permis le retablissement des ressources surexploitees. Le redressement de la situation en haute mer reclamera une forte collaboration gouvernementale pour faire respecter des niveaux (quotas) de prelevement moderes et des mesures protegeant la diversite biologique, comme des zones protegees, des reglements sur les prises accessoires et la conservation des habitats cruciaux. Le present article offre un bref survol des dimensions biologiques, institutionnelles et juridiques des peches en haute mer. Il souligne que nous vivons un moment unique dans l'histoire, ou une conscience, des progres scientifiques sans precedent et un empressement croissant a collaborer au niveau international preparent le terrain a une transformation dynamique de la gouvernance en haute mer. Ce qui fait defaut, c'est un plan d'ensemble visionnaire d'integration des efforts fragmentes vers le but commun du developpement durable en haute mer.


Fisheries have long been important in feeding a growing human population. They also have often been a contentious issue, causing conflicts among individuals, communities as well as nation states. Over the last decades, as the natural limits to the global seafood supply became evident, those conflicts have become more prevalent, giving rise to international laws and treaties that introduce governance systems beyond the immediate coastal waters. Despite efforts to regulate and restrain fishing activities, however, there are clear signs that current exploitation trends are unsustainable. For example, it appears that despite intensifying efforts, there has been a slow decline in global landings of wild fish over the last decade (1).

Consequently, there have been many calls to better manage global fisheries. Some have argued that we need to recognize past mistakes, such as those learned in the wake of the Canadian cod collapse in 1992. (2) Others emphasize that there also have been some notable successes that need to be emulated more broadly. (3) Clearly, both approaches are equally valid, and need to be merged in order to ensure a sustainable future for our fisheries.

Nowhere are the problems of fisheries management more evident than on the high seas, where ecological and economic stakes are high and laws and regulations remain weak or poorly enforced. The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention in various ways set the stage for the high-seas fisheries crisis. The Convention re-affirmed the primacy of exclusive flag State jurisdiction on the high seas, provided very general conservation obligations for States allowing their vessels to fish on the high seas, and only set out general duties on States to cooperate in conserving and managing high-seas living resources. Therefore, fishing on the high seas continues to attract the attention of international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the general public, all of which have a growing interest in management of high sea resources and a general concern for overfishing. (4) Because of this rising interest, and its relevance to foreign policy, this review is focusing on the problems of high-seas fisheries, as well as potential solutions.


The high seas are defined as the international waters beyond the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in which no State has any sovereign claims. Collectively these waters cover 218.7 million [km.sup.2], which equals about 61% of the world ocean, or 43% of the globe's surface. (5) Thus the high seas comprise by far the largest, and one of the most important ecosystems on Earth. They support highly lucrative fisheries for tuna, marlin, swordfish, and other pelagic (open-water) fishes and squids, and recently also deep-sea demersal (bottom-water) fishes. The three largest high-seas fishing nations (by volume) are Japan, China and Chile, other major fleets are from Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Spain, and the United States.

High-seas fish species can be broken into epipelagic species (tuna, marlin, or scad for example) and deep-water species (for example roughy, oreo, or toothfish). The number of targeted deep-water species continues to increase, reaching 115 in 2004, while the number of epipelagic species has remained stable at 60. (6) It is important to note that many of these species are also caught in individual countries' EEZs, as fish stocks migrate frequently between national and international waters. Indeed the highly migratory nature of most high-seas fish stocks has been a major challenge for successful management.

Fisheries are generally important for global food security, particularly with respect to the protein supply of poor coastal nations. The average global consumption of fish or shellfish is 16 kg per person. The contribution of fish proteins to total world animal protein supplies has recently been estimated around 15.5 percent, with much higher contributions in most island nations and many developing countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Equatorial Guinea, the Gambia, Guinea, Indonesia, Myanmar, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka). Globally, fish provides more than 2.8 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein. Around 200 million people are employed directly or indirectly in fisheries, most of them in coastal fisheries and in developing countries. High-seas fisheries contribute relatively little to employment, but they yield between 9-11 million tones, or 12-15% of the total marine fish catch by volume, and about 25% by value. The total value of high-seas fish catches is estimated around 21 billion $US (real year 2000 value), more than hail of that coming from tuna and billfishes. (All data from FAO (2007) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006, http://www.fao.org, and SAUP (2007) The Sea Around Us Project Database. http://www.seaaroundus.org)

This review is presented in foul" parts: 'Troubled Waters' assesses the history, rise and depletion of high-seas fisheries; 'Prospects for Recovery' examines the conditions under which marine living resources can recover from overfishing; 'Tangled Governance' highlights institutions and initiatives that deal with high-seas fisheries; and the conclusions present an outlook on the opportunities and challenges ahead.


    High-seas fisheries have only been developed on a large scale after World War II. Their rise was partly fuelled by technological innovation, such as specialized fishing gear, improved navigation, and improved devices to find fish aggregations in the open ocean. On the other hand stagnating or dwindling seafood supplies from coastal waters, and a growing global demand for fish products, have led to a rapid spatial expansion in the 1960s-1980s

    This is exemplified by the Japanese longlining fleet fishing for large tuna and billfish. Longlining employs long, baited fishing lines of up to 100km length with 1000-3000 hooks. The Japanese fleet is the largest longline operation worldwide, and was also the first to expand globally. Standardized catch rates (numbers of fish caught per 100 hooks) may provide an indication of the effects of fishing on high-seas fish stocks. It can be seen, how the fishery spread quickly from the Pacific into the Indian, and then into the Atlantic Ocean. Wherever new fishing grounds were explored, catch rates were high, usually...

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