Motivations for closing the high seas

Part II 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

Motivations for closing the high seas

Political motivation for addressing effort on the HS

Alfred “Bubba” Cook provides a geographically-specific example to illustrate his points of view on the management and political aspects of either closing or intensively managing the HS, restricting his comments to the situation in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean under the charge of the WCPFC. “We recently finished yet another contentious meeting of the WCPFC where management of the High Seas (or lack thereof) was, in fact, a prominent issue once again. Keep in mind that this is all intended to be academic because the reality of a closure of the HS, at least in the Pacific and in my opinion, is far-fetched at this time.”

“Irrespective of the ecological or biodiversity impacts of closing the HS and potentially squeezing effort into the EEZs, there is a strong political motivation for addressing effort on the HS that is multifaceted,” says Cook. “At its core, it is a matter of simplicity, which is that closing the HS is the most simple method for directly addressing many other knotty fisheries issues including preventing and deterring IUU, achieving more effective and efficient monitoring/control/surveillance (MCS), ensuring greater accountability of harvests occurring on the HS, and improving resource rents for the resource owners trying to better manage the resource within their EEZ. In some ways, these are all interrelated, but I will address them separately below.”

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

“Closure of the HS represents the single most simple and efficient mechanism for addressing IUU fishing on the HS. By closing the HS, any vessel caught fishing on the HS is inherently IUU, placing a bright line on the identification of illegal activity. This would include both fishing and transshipment vessels under the definition of fishing. Transshipment is broadly acknowledged in the WCPO as the single largest contributor to real and potential IUU in the region. Furthermore, fishing activity is (at least theoretically) much easier to monitor and enforce within an EEZ as opposed to on the HS under maritime law. In other words, from a purely management perspective, closure of the HS vastly simplifies management by making the management area smaller and easier to oversee. Thus, one could argue that by forcing what was IUU fishing on the HS into the “light” of the EEZ it could improve accountability and, therefore, management, despite any increased impact (at least on the target species) inside the EEZ.”


“There are precious few resources to monitor, control, and surveil fishing vessels within the respective EEZs in the WCPO, much less on the HS that are even more distant and remote than the islands themselves. For the same reasons that IUU can be more effectively addressed with a closure you can also better address MCS challenges. Limited resources can be distributed across a more restricted area under a legal regime that is more favorable to enforcement and compliance than on the high seas. Again, one could argue that more efficient and effective use of MCS resources could lead to greater accountability and, in turn, improved conservation and management.”


“As noted in the previous section, fishing and transshipment on the HS is largely conducted free of any MCS or reporting subject to significant verification and validation. This leaves a huge gap in the understanding of the real removals of biomass on the high seas or even in zone when that catch is delivered and transshipped on the high seas. This weakness has been confirmed in several analyses, the most recent conducted by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) described as the first quantitative assessment of IUU in the region. However, despite Conservation and Management Measures (CMMs) that prohibit transshipment on the HS and a requirement for observer coverage, a broad exception for “impracticability” has allowed the exception to become the rule and there has been no monitoring or consequence for a lack of compliance with the observer requirement. Thus, a complete closure of the HS would effectively prevent this lack of compliance and accountability by, like with the two previous aspects, forcing the activity into the EEZs of the Pacific Islands. Again, one could argue that this would improve accountability, assessment, and, ultimately, the conservation and management of the resource.”


“This issue, at best, only has a marginally tangential relationship with conservation and management and only if you consider the work of Elinor Olstrom on local resource management valid. This issue is more about social justice and pure economics than it is conservation. However, I believe that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the lack of transparency on the high seas that facilitates IUU and a lack of accountability represents the same factor that allows “roving bandits” to make off with the resource rents that could potentially be captured by the island states who, in turn, have a more vested interest in the resource’s sustainability as it represents, in some cases, the only natural resource and source of revenue that they have. The Pacific islands have been trying for years to force vessels to transship in zone/port or land in their respective countries in an effort to improve this accountability as well as secure greater rents from the resource through landings taxes, etc. By closing the HS, this would, again, drive the activity into a realm of legal and practical authority that would allow for countries to secure greater resource rents. Yet again, one could argue that, by the nature of the Pacific island nation’s reliance on the resource, they would be more apt to manage it more responsibly and sustainability if they had more control and oversight through in zone/port and landing requirements where they could extract some of the rents while, ostensibly, collecting better information on extractions from the fishery.”

“In sum, the Pacific Islands want a closure of the high seas for more reasons than just conservation. For instance, they see it as a gap that has driven the domestic South Pacific Albacore fleets to their knees with the stock teetering at a level that is not economically viable for unsubsidized fleets to fish. China has recently been unabashed about their goal to secure “history” in the fishery as a result of this underhanded effort to flood the fishery with heavily subsidized excess capacity on the HS that drives the resource down and the domestic fleets out of business. So, like so many other fisheries issues, this can be considered as much (if not more so) about politics than fish…”

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.