Alternatives to closing the high seas to fishing

Part IV 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

Alternatives to Closing the High Seas – Other Potential Strategies and Outcomes

“In my view, we have to somehow carve up the ocean into three categories: (1) Areas “owned” by countries (EEZs), (2) Areas not “owned” by anybody, and with no legally binding governance (basically the current situation on the HS), and (3) Areas closed to fishing (we don’t really have these outside of EEZs),” says Costello. “To me, an interesting question is whether we should have *any* of category 2. I can think of some equity-based arguments, but I’m not sure they would stand up to scrutiny.”

“Basically the tradeoff is: In open access, you get overfishing, which is bad (and suggests you do not want an open access HS). But complete privatization will only solve that problem (in theory) if fish don’t move (which suggests you don’t want complete privatization). It turns out that MPAs can mitigate both problems, under certain circumstances.”

“I remember two important events from the MLPA process that are relevant for this,” Costello continues. “First, I remember that our model showed that MPAs were really only valuable for fisheries when stocks were heavily overfished. Second, I remember Carl Walters famously arguing in one of the MLPA meetings that if stocks were overfished, and the idea was to use MPAs to help solve the problem, the MPAs would have to be very large much larger than those being considered by the state of CA at that time.”

Costello thinks it would be interesting to consider using “the “threat” of an MPA to get countries to cooperate on governance on the HS. Something like: If RFMOs can sufficiently organize countries so stocks are well-managed, then no MPA will be implemented. But if they cannot, then an MPA might be a useful threat point with other positive benefits.”

Ernesto Penas-Lado sees some issues with using the “threat” of implementing an MPA to motivate countries to cooperate. “White & Costello’s claim that a ban on HG fishing would “induce cooperation among countries” goes against all the evidence I have gathered over >20 years. Cooperation is best brought about by organizations dealing with HS fishing. Where these are not operational (i.e. CECAF in NW Africa) there is no cooperation among coastal states. My experience shows that coastal states are extremely zealous in preserving their independence within their EEZs, if possible to the detriment of their neighbors. Only multilateral cooperation (often imposed by developed countries onto developing ones, even if this sounds politically incorrect) does in fact promote cooperation. In Africa the only cooperation among coastal States was brought by the multilateral bodies established, not by coastal states themselves, who only rivalled in fishing more or attracting more foreign investment.”

“Multilateral cooperation is paramount, especially for highly migratory fish,” Penas-Lado continues. “There I disagree with your conclusions with John Siebert: even if there are local populations of skipjack, these do not coincide with EEZs, so you still need agreements among states, and not just on data collection and science, but crucially on allocation of fishing rights. Lack of multilateral cooperation on skipjack would produce olympic (first come first served) fisheries and would aggravate interceptory fisheries, thus increasing conflict, not cooperation. And on yellowfin tuna, after years dealing with IATTC, I am sure the East Pacific stock would not be better served by the US, Mexico and Ecuador acting as unconstrained coastal states than it has been under IATTC.”

“Enforcement should be a crucial consideration here. Firstly, the intense EU experience fighting IUU (including by European interests) clearly shows that most IUU fishing takes place inside EEZs. Banning fishing in the HS would do nothing to resolve that. On the contrary, it would probably aggravate it: many IUU vessels excluded from the HS would no doubt redeploy within EEZs, and our evidence shows they will stop at nothing to ensure such access, legally or illegally. I have seen myself the level of mismanagement and corruption of many coastal states.”

“Further in enforcement, if fishing in the HS is banned, who will enforce it? The countries that contribute to HS enforcement do so because they fish there. They have an obligation to do it under UNCLOS and they have a vested interest to ensure a level playing field. You remove the fishery and you remove the motivation to control the HS.”

“Legally, who will have to abide by the ban? International fisheries law is not ratified by everyone (the US has not ratified UNCLOS, and many countries have not ratified UNFSA). If you can opt out of such agreement, those that will not sign it could take the place of those withdrawing from the HS. After dealing a lot with certain countries around the world on the IUU file, I am certain that the ban would be ignored by at least a few. Are we going to tell our fishermen to withdraw from the HS only for some opportunistic countries/fleets to occupy their place?”

Closing Comments

Resolving the issue of whether or not to close the high seas to fishing is mostly about politics. To quote Otto van Bismarck, “politics is the art of the possible.” “Any advancements here will involve that art and not just science,” says George Rose. “I believe that a complete closure is not possible, and in some cases where reasonable management is in place not advisable, for the many reasons stated in the comments. Nonetheless, there are many ocean areas where a moratorium as suggested by Holt makes sense – at a minimum to draw attention to uncontrolled fisheries and lack of any science or even basic information. This approach would rely on spatially based categorization of the HS into management areas, much as suggested by Chris Costello, with some areas having controlled fishing with gear restrictions and others with no fishing (I see no future in an open category except as a throw-away). Having fishing industry involved in this would be necessary for this to have any chance of being effective. There are examples of this approach that have been very effective at smaller coastal scales. Accomplishing this would be difficult enough politically and involve a major international effort but setting complete closure goals that are impossible to achieve and of questionable merit only muddies the waters.”

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.