Should We Close The High Seas to Fishing?

Part I of IV

By Gretchen Thuesen


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

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.

Read the rest of the series:

Featured in the discussion:

Martin Hall

Head of Bycatch Programs and Agreement for the International Dolphin Conservation Program of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) since 1984.

Sidney Holt

Author of “On the Dynamics of Exploited Fish Populations” published in 1957; Served with the FAO in 1953 and with other UN agencies for another 25 years.

George Rose

Retired; Former Head of the Fisheries Conservation Group and Director of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research (CFER); Worked in the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries for almost 30 years.

John Hampton

Oceanic Fisheries Program (OFP) Manager at The Pacific Community (SPC); Has 30 years of experience in tuna stock assessment, and currently works on the development and application of the MULTIFAN-CL stock assessment model.

John Sibert

Program Manager of the Pelagic Fisheries Research Program (PFRP), in the Joint Institute of Marine Research of the University of Hawaii at Manoa; 40 years of experience in marine science research, most of it involving quantitative analysis of complex systems using non-linear statistical models.

Chris Costello

Professor of Natural Resource Economics, Bren School UCSB; Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research

Ernesto Penas-Lado

Director for Policy Development and Coordination at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries since 2010; He first joined the European Commission in 1986.

Alfred "Bubba" Cook

Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager for WWF’s Smart Fishing Initiative; 13 years of experience working in fisheries conservation and management.

John Musick

Faculty Emeritus at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).

Petri Suuronen

Fisheries Expert in the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, Fishing Operations and Technology Branch (FIAO) since 2009; Former Research Director at Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute for 12 years.

Dave Fluharty

Associate Professor at the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs since 2000; Chaired / Sat on numerous boards and committees for, among others, NOAA and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and consulted on projects from West Africa to the Yellow Sea.