Taming the Ocean’s Wild West

The high seas are often called the ocean’s Wild West—open territory far from any shoreline or national jurisdiction where the global fishing fleet takes a free-for-all approach to harvesting the world’s shared resources. There’s some truth to that, but there are, in fact, laws intended to manage fishing on the high seas. They’re hard to monitor and even harder to enforce.

For decades technology has been extending the reach of fishing vessels that can now operate farther from shore, stay out longer and harvest more than ever before. Finally, the technology to monitor their activities is catching up.

New tools enable us to see what’s going on out there and to trace the catch through the supply chain from boat to plate. Increasing transparency, consumer awareness and political will are converging to tame the watery Wild West.

International-level control over global fisheries began taking shape in earnest in 1982 with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The treaty granted every nation with a coastline the right to control marine resources up to 200 miles from its shores. Those areas are called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Beyond those boundaries lie the high seas, encompassing roughly 60 percent of the world’s oceans. In 1995, the UN Fish Stocks Agreement was added to the treaty to set provisions for the formation of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) composed of representatives from nations that fish in a set region or target a specific stock.

For example, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission regulates tuna fisheries in the Indian Ocean, while the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission regulates multiple commercial species throughout the North East Atlantic. There is overlap between RFMOs, some of which even have the right to regulate certain fish stocks that move between the EEZs and High seas.

Technically, the whole ocean is managed in one way or another, but regulations only address the most commercially valuable species, which leaves many species open to uncontrolled over fishing. For example, squid fishing in the South Atlantic does not fall under an RFMO.

Even among fisheries covered by RFMOs, effective management is challenging. Achieving consensus among many member states (sometimes as many as 30 nations) can be an acrimonious and messy affair, perhaps a little like folding 30 sheets of paper into a single origami lion.

When consensus is finally reached and the rules are set, monitoring and enforcement rely on the honor system because the RFMO itself has no enforcement authority beyond blacklisting non compliant vessels. It’s up to member states to enforce sanctions. There is no legal recourse for countries that accept catch from fleets that exceed quotas or breach the rules.

What’s more, RFMOs are voluntary. Nothing can stop a nation that fishes on the high seas from refusing to join or agree to the rules. In that sense, the high seas can be thought of as the last wild ungoverned territory left on Earth.

To be fair, most governments agree it’s in everyone’s best interest to manage fisheries sustainably, but the incentives and pressures to “grab it while you can” often overpower the patience and trust required to protect a shared resource for the common good, especially when you’re concerned that others are doing the same.

Enter transparency and traceability. In recent years, satellite and ground-based tracking technology has been used by industries and governments to track all manner of sea going vessels. Proprietary and expensive, this information has remained out of reach of most people, but that’s changing. Now that Global Fishing Watch is using satellite technology to make fishing activity visible to everyone, for free, on a global scale, the genie has been let out of the bottle.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for fishing fleets to claim they’re playing by RFMO rules when they’re not. It will also be easier for those who play by the rules to make sure they’re not being cheated out of their fair share.

Other technologies are also emerging to help verify the location and method by which fish are hauled from the sea. Cameras on fishing vessels are an example some fisheries are currently experimenting with.

Transparency won’t create new authority to prosecute high-seas rule-breakers, but it will give the international community more leverage. With proof in hand that a given fleet is fishing illegally or not reporting its catch, countries can more easily deny access to their ports. More than 30 nations have signed the UN Port State Measures Agreement, which obligates them to enact strict requirements for allowing fishing vessels entrance to port. The measures are intended to ensure illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fish catch has nowhere to land.

The pressure is on for countries seeking to compete in the global seafood market to follow regulations and drive out IUU fishing. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the state of the oceans and concerned about the source of their food. To ensure transparency continues from port to plate, new traceability tools are being introduced, and big retailers such as Costco and Walmart can move the needle by refusing to source seafood from suppliers without a sustainable certification.

Although governance on the high seas is likely to remain an exercise in cooperation and self-policing, the conditions high seas fishers face back on shore are changing. Tolerance for the old ways has diminished along with the fish, and the free-for-all may soon be coming to an end.

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