Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Are High Seas and International Marine Fisheries the Ultimate Sustainable Management Challenge?

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Are High Seas and International Marine Fisheries the Ultimate Sustainable Management Challenge?

Article excerpt

Fishing on the high seas was a feature of societies long before large areas of the world's seas were claimed by nation states. The Basques fished for Atlantic cod off Newfoundland; tuna was fished first by the Japanese and later by many other longline, pole-and-line and purse seine fleets; whaling, which began in the Atlantic in the 15th century, has taken place in all oceans, including the Southern Ocean. (1)

Throughout history, fishery developments have been driven by new technologies, enterprising practitioners and economic incentives. Over the millennia, improved boats, fishing gear and navigational knowledge have enabled humans to explore and exploit greater ranges of marine stocks in more distant waters and at increasing depths. (2) However, inshore and offshore fisheries have always developed faster than the institutions that govern them. This combination of technology, enterprise and market dynamics raises the question: Are high seas fishery resources economically and environmentally sustainable?

This paper explores the sustainability of international and high seas fisheries. It attempts to address whether the problems of maintaining these fisheries are tractable or if they indeed represent an ultimately futile sustainability challenge. Among the solutions examined are international legal arrangements, fishery institutions, economic and trade instruments, scientific and public knowledge, and aquaculture. All solutions are feasible, but even the best amalgamation of strategies will only succeed if political governance pays much more attention to the problem.


While inland transboundary waterways, such as Lake Victoria, the Mekong River and the Caspian Sea, present significant difficulties, far greater complexity arises with international and high seas fisheries: Their physical distance from land and direct oversight make them difficult and costly to monitor, assess and regulate. The worldwide excess of fishing vessels that are capable of exploiting the high seas compounds this situation.

However, international conventions, treaties and commissions did not begin to regulate fishing of even the most prominent species until soon after World War II. The first of these was the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) of 1946, followed later by such bodies as the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission in 1950 and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna in 1968. (3)

On the high seas, properly rights and territorial limits are very difficult to define, regulate and enforce. (4) In 1949, the United Nations International Law Commission began codifying existing coastal laws and working toward a convention on the seas. The UN Law of the Sea Conferences in 1958, 1960 and from 1973 to 1982 eventually led to an agreement on the more comprehensive United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994 when it was ratified by 60 countries. This convention remains the chief international instrument of ocean governance. It specifically reaffirms the principles of "freedom of the high seas," and "freedom of fishing," albeit within certain limits. (5)

Since UNCLOS was established, both sovereign nations and multilateral institutions have sought to bring greater order to high seas fisheries by (1) applying international frameworks to marine conservation and the fluctuations of fish stocks, (2) creating and strengthening international fishery institutions, (3) improving scientific and public knowledge of fisheries, and (4) turning to aquaculture as a possible source of additional fish. Each of these solutions have merit, but a close examination of each option and its potential permutations nonetheless reveals major challenges to resource sustainability, as the following analysis demonstrates. …

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