Closing the high seas to fishing has been a contentious and debated topic in international fisheries news and policy. Two recent papers suggest major benefits from closing the high seas. A 2014 paper by White and Costello claimed that closing the high seas (HS) to fishing entirely would allow for >100% increase in fisheries profit, >30% increase in fisheries yields, and >150% increase in fish stock conservation. In short, it would return “larger fishery and conservation outcomes than does a HS open to fishing.” Another paper by Sumaila et al. 2015 examined potential changes in global catch as a result of closing the HS and found that “closing the HS could be catch-neutral while inequality in the distribution of fisheries benefits among the world’s maritime countries could be reduced by 50%.”

We collected responses (originally in an email chain) from an array of experts on aspects of closing high seas fisheries then summarized their main points into four commentaries:

  1. Should we close the high seas to fishing?
  2. Motivations for closing the high seas
  3. Closing the high seas – potential implications and outcomes
  4. Alternatives to closing the high seas – other potential strategies and outcomes

This is the first post in a series that will run through the rest of the week.

Featured in this discussion:

Martin Hall

Sidney Holt

George Rose

John Hampton

John Sibert

Chris Costello

Ernesto Penas-Lado

Alfred “Bubba” Cook

John Musick

Petri Suuronen

Dave Fluharty

Should We Close The High Seas to Fishing?

General impressions

“This is a very difficult subject to address as a whole,” says Sidney Holt. “My choice is a moratorium on all high seas fishing, not a permanent ban, until such time as the UN – and other entities such as the EU – modify their management targets in such a way as to require reduction of mandated fishing intensities (F-MSY) so as to allow sustainable fishing to be profitable and also less destructive of the marine ecosystems as a whole.” Dr. Holt’s opinion is based on the inadequacy of our knowledge and procedures, both scientific and political. In other words, “until we can change the basic prevailing rule (namely, the reliance on MSY), HS fishing should pause. Furthermore the high fishing intensity required by the MSY rule is ecologically harmful generally,” says Dr. Holt.

On the other hand, George Rose thinks “the notion of banning all high seas fishing is politically impossible and perhaps scientifically unjustified. A better solution might be to better regulate ALL fishing (and yes with lots of closures) but worry more about the other major factors that will impact fisheries in the coming century (climate change and acidification, pollution, excessive demand for seafood from a growing human population)” he says.

Comments by geography

Responses to the acceptability of closing the high seas varied depending on geography and was related to the recognition that all HS areas are not created equal. In other words, many HS areas are “utterly different,” says Sidney Holt.

Examples of geographies supporting closure of the HS:

“The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) countries in this region have implemented something akin to a high seas closure in their licensing, whereby they will only license purse seine vessels to fish in their EEZs where those flag states agree not to fish on the high seas,” Says John Hampton. “The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission has also implemented closures of two high-seas pockets to purse seine fishing, so there is some precedent for this in the western Pacific.”

Looking to the northern hemisphere, “The notion of closing all high seas fisheries has some attraction for Canada’s east coast, as it would eliminate the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organizations (NAFO) (largely European) fishing effort on the Nose and Tail of the Grand Bank (straddling stocks) and on the Flemish Cap,” says George Rose. “It would likely help with the rebuilding of the Northern Cod (not a straddling stock but does move to the Nose at times) and the Grand Banks cod (fully straddling) and other stocks as it would reduce fishing effort and mortality. We like to think that under Canadian management these stocks would do better, although there is no certainty about that. But in any event, I would think accomplishing this would take more than a miracle.”

Examples of geographies opposing closure of the HS:

Banning fishing in the HS “would finish the Hawaii longline (HI LL) fishery,” says John Sibert. “The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument will probably exclude all commercial fishing from the Northwestern Hawaii Islands (NWHI). The longline fishery currently operates under spatial constraints in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). High seas fishing grounds are the only option for the benighted HI LL fleet. I suspect the same is true for the longline boats operating in other parts of the US, particularly on the west coast.