Out of sight and out of mind, the most valuable fisheries on Earth are up for grabs.
May 8, 2012, United Nations- It’s called ABNJ, which stands for Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, and it makes up 64% of the surface of the world’s oceans. Yet, this part of the planet has no protection from the massive destruction by private interest fishing operations. At the UN today, a Program on Global Sustainable Fisheries Management and Biodiversity in ABNJ was introduced to protect the biodiversity of this area, which some consider to be the last global “commons” on Earth.
Organized by the Global Ocean Forum, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 30 experts from those groups as well as UNEP, the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, International Sustainable Seafood Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy gathered to share the details of a new program that will devote $44 million dollars to manage the long-term health of this frontier which is depreciating rapidly. Throughout history, it’s been “every man for himself” out there beyond the watchful eyes of citizens, giving way to total anarchy dominated by highly sophisticated $10 billion dollar/year fishing operations equal to 6.3 million tons caught per year.
While land degradation is visible, ocean degradation is invisible and this makes the task of protecting our high seas particularly challenging, as the area is unmonitored. The effect of loss of biodiversity in the open ocean, however, is very much felt in the decline of fisheries in coastal waters.
In the decade following the adoption of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, fishing on the high seas became a major international problem. The Convention gave all states the freedom to fish without regulations on the high seas, but coastal states, to which the Law of the Sea conferred exclusive economic rights including the right to fish within 200 miles off their shores, began to complain that fleets fishing on the high seas were reducing catches in their domestic waters.
The problem centered on fish populations that “straddle” the boundaries of countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs), such as cod off Canada’s eastern coast and pollock in the Bering Sea, and highly migratory species like tuna and swordfish, which move between EEZs and the high seas.
By the early 1990s, most stocks of commercially valued fish were running low, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). As catches became smaller, coastal states complained that the industrial-scale fishing operations on the high seas were undermining their efforts to conserve and revitalize fish stocks.
There is a history of violence between fishing vessels and coastal states, most notable during the “cod wars” of the 1970s. Several countries, including Britain and Norway, sent naval ships to protect fishing fleets on the high seas. Spanish fishers clashed with British and French drift netters in what came to be known as the “tuna wars.” Before the UN Agreement on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks was finalized in October 1995, several coastal states had fired shots at foreign fleets. In the northern Atlantic, Canada seized and confiscated a Spanish boat fishing in international waters just beyond the Canadian 200-mile limit.
At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, known as the first Earth Summit, governments called on the United Nations to find ways to conserve fish stocks and prevent international conflicts over fishing on the high seas.
The coastal states most concerned during the negotiations about the impact of high seas fishing on their domestic harvest included Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Iceland and New Zealand, complaining that only six countries were responsible for 90 per cent of deep sea fishing: Russia, Japan, Spain, Poland, the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan province of China. The United States also caught a significant amount of fish, especially tuna, and China soon became a major fishing nation.
Companies began to use refrigerated factory trawlers or “mother ships” that allowed fleets to travel vast distances from the home country and to stay at sea for longer periods without having to return to shore. What quickly became a human rights issue, these fleets undermined the livelihoods of local fishers, depriving poor people in coastal areas of a primary source of sustenance.
On the table for Rio+20 next month, though not without conflict, is an end to government fishing subsidies, considered to be as damaging as fossil fuel subsidies. No agreement has been reached here, nor has a proposed phase-out of all deep-sea bottom-trawl fishing on the high seas by 2015. This is called for on the basis that no deep-sea bottom trawl vessels or fleets have demonstrated that they can fish deep-sea species sustainably and prevent damage to deep-sea ecosystems.
Also at the negotiating table is a call for labeling, and for seafood buyers and retailers to only buy and sell fish from deep-sea fisheries that have clearly demonstrated no harm to deep-sea ecosystems.
Today, as global fish stocks decline, seafood becomes an increasingly expensive item for the rich and a rarity for the poor. With the world population expected to reach 8.2 billion by 2030, the planet will have to feed an additional 1.5 billion people, 90 percent of whom will be living in developing countries many of whom depend on local fisheries.
Find out more about GEF/FAO Program on Global Sustainable Fisheries Management and Biodiversity Conservation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction here, and other issues on the negotiating table for Rio+20 here.