- About 40 percent of commercial fish species spend time on the high seas, where they are caught with few limitations. Experts fear they are being severely depleted.
- Today countries conclude the first round of negotiations at the United Nations in New York City toward a new treaty aimed at conserve biodiversity on the high seas.
- The treaty is expected to be finalized by 2019, at the earliest.
If you go more than 200 miles off the coast anywhere on Earth, you end up in the high seas, the largely ungoverned portion of the ocean that covers 43 percent of the globe’s surface. In recent years, conservationists have been clammoring for more regulation, since about 40 percent of commercial fish species spend time on the high seas. Today, those fish are being caught there with few limits, and experts fear they being severely depleted.
But that will likely soon change. The first round of negotiations toward a treaty to govern “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity” on the high seas close today at the United Nations in New York City, illuminating a path towards regulating the vast tracts of ocean more clearly than ever before. Representatives of more than 80 nations are participating in the negotiations, which began on March 28 and are scheduled to end this evening.
“It’s taken about a decade of work by dedicated governments and the NGO community to get to this point, and we’re all quite happy to see this process moving to the next step,” Elizabeth Wilson, the director of international ocean policy at the nonprofit the Pew Charitable Trusts who is attending the negotiations in New York, told Mongabay. Pew has been involved in the lead up to the negotiations for the past few years.
“This is the beginning of the process that could lead to real change in how we manage the world’s oceans,” she said.
Government agencies and international governing bodies limit and monitor some commercial activity on the high seas, using the legal framework set up by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty that came into force in 1994.
Some oversight is better than none, but there are many gaps, Wilson said. For instance, there is no mechanism to coordinate across existing management regimes for mining, shipping, and fishing, and no system to protect a sensitive area or vulnerable species through marine protected areas. “We need a better system in place,” she said.
Overfishing of the high seas is a growing problem, Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, told Mongabay. Tuna, marlin, and hundreds of other commercially caught species (and probably many more that scientists haven’t yet discovered) swim through these waters. About 10 million tons of fish are caught on the high seas every year, amounting to about $16 billion and 12 percent of the total global catch, according to a 2015 study in Scientific Reports that Pauly co-authored. That has led to overfishing in two thirds of the fish stocks on the high seas, according to The Economist, leading organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace to speak out against the practice.
Overfishing on the high seas is having effects closer to shore, depleting fish stocks where most of the planet’s fish are caught. If high-seas fishing is left virtually unregulated, Pauly and other experts fear it could cause irrevocable damage to the world’s fisheries, wiping out whole populations of fish and limiting the amount available for human consumption.
Moreover, since no governing bodies have complete jurisdiction on the high seas, it has become a hotbed of illegal activity: a sanctuary for fish poachers, drug smugglers, and violators of human rights. As a result, the need for regulation in the high seas has become overwhelming, many observers say.
“We will never have a situation where it’s better not to have any legislation on the high seas. We need to have legislation,” Pauly said. He likened the degradation of the high seas to global warming: if we don’t do something about it now, it will only be more difficult and costly to take meaningful action in the future. A treaty would provide environmental benefits beyond maintaining the world’s fisheries, Pauly said; it could also help nations figure out how to clean the massive garbage patches swirling and swelling in the world’s oceans.
Exactly what kind of laws should protect the high seas — and how to enforce them — is a main topic of debate. In their paper Pauly and his colleagues suggested that all fishing be banned in the high seas, effectively making it a marine reserve. That would increase the amount of fish caught closer to shore by about 20 percent, he said, and distribute the catch more equally to countries that can’t afford high-seas fleets. Enforcement would be simple, Pauly added, if each boat were required to carry satellite communication equipment—an idea that other experts have also suggested. “If you know this is a no-fishing area, any boat that exhibits fishing patterns [in its movements] can be very easily identified by satellite,” Pauly said.
A complete ban on fishing isn’t likely to be the solution that all stakeholders can compromise on, however, said Wilson of Pew. At least, no one has formally suggested it at the negotiations. As Pauly’s paper contends, a fishing ban would cause some countries to be clear winners in treaty negotiations, while others would be clear losers. That’s a result that most participants in the talks would like to avoid.
“We certainly hope there won’t be losers out of this agreement,” Wilson said. “We want it to benefit everyone involved.”
The likely result once the agreement is finalized, is the establishment of a process to create marine protected areas on the high seas where fishing could be prohibited or restricted. Countries could then propose protecting specific sites under the treaty. There are a few locations of ecological significance that are obvious choices, such as the Saragasso Sea, a gyre in the middle of the Atlantic that Pew’s website says serves as an “incubator for much of the Atlantic’s marine life,” and the White Shark Cafe, an area in the Pacific where hundreds of great white sharks congregate during their annual migration.
As negotiations continue during three more meetings, representatives from United Nations member countries and civil society groups will pore over the scientific assessments and lobby for their own interests. One of the biggest points of contention will be how to enforce the agreement. Each country could be responsible for regulating fishing boats that return to its harbors or set out from its shores, Wilson said. The treaty might also call for the creation of an international enforcement body, which would have to work with institutions that already govern parts of the high seas.
Participants haven’t yet discussed specific sites for reserves or enforcement tactics at this first meeting, Wilson said, and are unlikely to do so in the hours remaining. Rather, the goal was to start to lay the groundwork of understanding and float concepts that will be negotiated at future meetings.
The first big step, Pauly said, is for the global community to begin thinking of the high seas as an area that can be regulated. “Closing the high seas in one go will never be realized. But the UN could give itself the ability to declare marine reserves for the benefit of all humanity,” he said.
That shift in perspective, at the very least, was achieved, Wilson said, adding that the negotiations are off to a good start and making headway toward a treaty that all stakeholders will agree on.
“We were pleasantly surprised with how active and constructive governments from around the world were during the meeting,” Wilson wrote in an email. “It gives us great hope that a robust new treaty can be developed in the next few years to ensure the health of the high seas.
The treaty is expected to be finalized by 2019, at the earliest.
|CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this story stated inaccurately that the UN hopes to finalize the treaty by 2018; in fact the treaty is expected to be finalized by 2019 at the earliest. It also misconstrued a position of Elizabeth Wilson of the Pew Charitable Trusts as being that fishing on the high seas falls into a management gap; the current version presents her views on the matter more precisely. Finally the story erroneously stated that after two years of negotiations the expected outcome would be the establishment of marine protected areas in the high seas; in fact finalizing the agreement could take several years and would result in a system for establishing marine protected areas. The current version has been updated to reflect these issues.|
- Rashid Sumaila, U. et al. (2015). Winners and losers in a world where the high seas is closed to fishing. Scientific Reports 5: 8481.