Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Fisheries, Sovereignties and Red Herrings

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Fisheries, Sovereignties and Red Herrings

Article excerpt

In some circles, environmental issues are thought to be a completely new kettle of fish, requiring an entirely new way of thinking and organizing internationally. This is perhaps so, but they may ultimately prove an empty kettle of fish. U.S. salmon fishers off the Alaskan panhandle, for example, have recently fished so intensively that Canadian fishers in northern British Columbia claim stocks are insufficient to replenish supply. In protest Canadian fishers have mounted massive fleets on the Canadian side of the border to catch the Coho Salmon before they run back into the U.S. Straits of Juan de Fuca. The move has prompted negotiations and reminded both sides that the salmon is a common resource requiring care and trust between fishing parties if it is to be maintained. Although each country claims and respects the other's territorial sovereignty within internationally recognized boundaries, sovereignty alone does not solve the problem. Indeed, some might argue that sovereignty aggravates it.

Do environmental problems - particularly those of global scale - pose new challenges to the tradition of national sovereignty? Certainly there is ample reason for concern, as suggested by theoretical perspectives and historical events; however, this article shall argue that although the intellectual tradition of sovereignty presents some complications to international environmental resolutions, it need not prove fatal to them. Through agreements and negotiations, independent states can reach environmental accords without compromising their own sovereignty. Nevertheless, there are a number of qualifications to explore first, both to understand properly constituted sovereignty and to see why such sovereign states can cooperate rather than conflict over environmental issues. Ultimately this article will conclude that where states are democratic, environmental coordination and national sovereignty do not conflict. With sovereignty properly conceptualized and understood, one can begin to envisage how new actors on the international scene, in particular non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations, can help to facilitate such cooperation without compromising the essence of sovereignty. All of these factors suggest serious adaptations that sovereign nation-states must address as they enter the next century - a challenge for all involved on a planetary scale.

This article takes the following forms: First, democratic states contain internal mechanisms which make them better able to represent the environmental interests of their citizens in the international realm and balance those interests against other benefits which may come from environmentally degrading activities. Second, because they are better able to "feel" the environmental conditions in their territories, democratic governments should be able to negotiate satisfactory environmental treaties rather than have standards enforced upon them by an international authority. At the same time, this article will argue that democratic states are those states to which the concept of sovereignty as autonomy applies with the most moral force. Democratic states should, therefore, be able to negotiate environmental treaties as well as have their mutual autonomy respected. In this way, environment and sovereignty need not stand in opposition.

The question is more complicated for non-democratic states. States lacking democratic processes tend systematically to underestimate the costs of environmental degradation relative to the benefits gained from degrading activities. As a result, environmental problems are likely to reach critical proportions before such states are willing to negotiate or act.(1) In addition, although there are historical precedents and geostrategic reasons for respecting the sovereignty of non-democratic states, their moral claim to sovereignty is less warranted, as these states do not effectively represent the interests of their citizens. …

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