Can We Achieve Sustainable Fishing on a Global Scale?

Recent moves toward international agreements combined with leveraging new technologies on a global scale could get us there

To stop global overfishing, we have to find new ways to leverage existing international cooperation and incorporate new technologies. Image Credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

The high seas—the open ocean, which begins 200 nautical miles offshore—make up about two-thirds of the world’s oceans. They’re home to around 95 percent of the occupied habitat on the planet, including countless species of fish and other forms of marine life. They’re also beyond any single country’s jurisdiction, and that makes things complicated when it comes to taking care of our oceans and the food supplies they provide. To safeguard the supply of seafood, not to mention entire ecosystems on which human life depends, we shouldn’t let the open ocean waste away.

Fortunately, there are important efforts underway at the international level to make sure that doesn’t happen. In March, to great applause from delegates, observers and everyone concerned about global overfishing, a United Nations conference reached an agreement on rules to protect the high seas. The treaty has been described as “the most important international negotiations that no one has ever heard of.” It took a lot to get here—nearly 20 years of negotiations, for a start.

Since 2001, the World Trade Organization has been trying to get countries to agree to limit government subsidies that incentivize the very thing we need to stop: overfishing. The WTO’s focus has been on eliminating and controlling subsidies to build supersized fishing vessels and machinery that scrapes the bottom of the seas and damages delicate ecosystems. Last year, some WTO members drafted the “WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies,” which draws on existing WTO rules for subsidies and countermeasures to help encourage ocean sustainability.

The UN high seas treaty and the WTO’s efforts to curb harmful subsidies are welcome steps, but they’re far from done deals. Two-thirds of UN members need to ratify the treaty for it to come into effect. The fine print of the WTO agreement shows that it is effectively an agreement to keep talking until 2024, when members will meet again. Even if both the treaty and the agreement are implemented, many experts believe that they won’t be enough to curb global overfishing. We need to find new ways to leverage existing international cooperation, and we need to lean into new technologies on a global scale.

Overfishing: Focus on the Where, Not the Who

Globally, people are eating more seafood than ever before. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, humans ate 158 million metric tons of seafood in 2019 compared with 29 million metric tons in 1961. That’s more than a fivefold increase, while the world’s population grew two-and-a-half-fold over the same period. But information from the Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that consumer demand for fish is driven at least as much by higher standards of living as by surging population. Many poorer regions, including Africa and Latin America, rank near the bottom of fish consumption per capita, though they are adjacent to some of the world’s richest fish stocks.

Behind the headline consumption and population numbers lies the hidden aspect of unequal distribution of the global catch. Richer nations have the option to modernize their fishing fleets to explore new fisheries, including those near the coasts of other nations. Poorer nations, on the other hand, may not have the resources to develop modern fleets, and fishing communities in these nations sometime have their access to fisheries limited by the encroachment of other, richer countries.

Overfishing, or taking more fish out of a body of water than the biome can replenish, is often driven by poaching, over-harvesting and other perennial rule-breaking problems—practices that the UN described as “illegal, unreported and unregulated” fishing in a 2015 report. How can we go about fixing the overfishing problem? Focusing on where overfishing is occurring rather than on who does the fishing may be the more effective strategy, for a couple of reasons. First, fishing vessels can turn off their transponders to pursue illegal fishing activities. Second, the “who” can be elusive. Commercial fishing vessels often use flags of convenience, and many owners register their vessels with flag states that are unable or unwilling to exercise criminal jurisdiction over them.

Data, electronic monitoring and technology are emerging as key tools in this effort to control overfishing. Global Fishing Watch, with founding partners that include Google, Oceana, Skytruth and other leading scientific institutions such as NASA, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Natural Earth and GADM, produces open-source datasets and analyses to monitor “apparent fishing efforts.” A working group coordinated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has mapped out regions of the world’s oceans that are at the greatest risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The U.S. State Department shares this information through its overseas missions to help countries combat such fishing.

Mapping tools and monitoring technologies are helpful for identifying at-risk fisheries and quantifying the health of fish stocks. Just as important is getting governments around the world to commit to enforcing changed fishing practices in order to protect these resources.

Managing a Moving Target

In her chapter on industrial fisheries in “Global Political Ecology,” Becky Mansfield, an associate professor at Ohio State University, writes that “people’s efforts to capture fish and shellfish have caused rapid declines all over the world in the abundance of many species and in the mix of species.” Citing fisheries experts, she points out that “over the past 50 years the global biomass of large predatory fish—such as tuna and swordfish—has declined by 90%, and that the diversity of these fish has declined 10-50%.”

Thus, it is not simply the existing biomass of fish on Earth that is at issue but also the populations of individual species. If stocks of a particularly prized species of fish decline to the point that it is not economically feasible to catch them in useful numbers, fishing fleets with the means to do so will expand their range, exploring new waters, or they will start specializing in different species. The ramifications for biodiversity and for fishing communities can be severe.

The iconic coastal city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has collapsed as a fishing community as the cod and flounder populations of the Georges Bank have also gone bust. In an effort to stem the decline in fisheries in Gloucester and elsewhere, the U.S. government imposed an escalating series of restrictions on catches, from net sizes to quotas to outright bans on fishing for certain species. With “no cod left in Cape Cod,” one vendor in Gloucester laments that he sells more T-shirts to tourists than ice to fishers.

But it is difficult to manage wild fish stocks. Many species are wide-ranging or migratory. Populations may straddle the boundaries of one nation’s exclusive economic zone and another’s, or they may cross the lines that divide EEZs from the high seas. As defined by international law, a nation’s EEZ extends from its 12-mile territorial waters out to 200 miles from its coasts. According to a 2015 paper in the journal Scientific Reports, the depletion of high-seas stocks can influence the availability of fish to coastal fleets. “We now know that many ocean predators forage in both EEZs and the high seas in the course of a year, exploiting different regions of high prey availability,” the report says. “Some ‘high seas’ species therefore straddle EEZ boundaries; hence, mismanaging the high seas also can have direct repercussions on coastal communities and ecosystems.”

Uncertainty about the behaviors of certain wide-ranging fish species, especially those with the highest commercial value, may compromise even the most diligent efforts to manage fisheries. This means that we might not even know what impact a given level of fishing is having on a species population and its ecosystem.

One way to dispel uncertainty in managing fish stocks is to acquire more data on catches. In 2019, California Environmental Associates, a San Francisco-based consultancy, and The Nature Conservancy, a conservation-focused nonprofit, published a collaborative study showing that electronic monitoring of fishing boats is making inroads as a means of collecting more comprehensive data on live catches, helping to increase understanding of species and of the health of fish stocks. The technique—which applies a number of technologies, including onboard video, GPS, sensors and communications, to supplement or even replace human observers—is gaining acceptance among fishing fleet operators and fisheries managers at the national and regional levels, although perhaps not as quickly as might be desired.

Enter Environmental Science

Jesse Kreier, a former WTO official and now a teacher of international trade law at Georgetown Law School, said the interaction between environment and trade has always been an important one. “When I was first starting my career, the interactions between trade and environment—trade and science—were principally when regulators wanted to impose some modulation on open trade associated with environmental concerns,” he said.

Well-known examples he cited include the so-called “shrimp-turtle” and “tuna-dolphin” rules that originated in the United States in the late 1980s and 1990s, the latter of which made “dolphin-safe” labels on tuna cans ubiquitous in American cupboards. In these cases, the United States wanted to restrict imports of shrimp and tuna that were being caught in a way that killed other marine creatures in significant numbers.

According to Kreier, environmental concerns have long been a feature of international trade discussions. However, in the past those discussions typically focused on how nations could restrict trade openness in certain circumstances to take environmental impact into account. “It was sort of a defensive approach to the environment,” he said.

This defensiveness was not necessarily welcomed internationally. A key criticism was that the United States was using the environment to block free trade access to its markets. Such issues generally wind up at the WTO, which has brought the WTO into the front and center of the fisheries management issue. Kreier explained that, over time, discussions about defensive rules enacted by certain countries have evolved into more general negotiations about fundamental issues affecting the health of fish stocks and the biodiversity of the planet.

“What makes the fisheries subsidies negotiations sort of a first is that instead of modulating our trade openness to take into account environmental concerns, the fisheries subsidies agreement is an effort to use WTO rules to permanently advance an environmental agenda,” Kreier said. He added that an agreed-to framework is preferable to defensive trade measures. “Instead of using the rules to address a specific environmental problem, you are talking about a set of rules that are specifically designed to address a sustainability issue.”

On the other hand, the far-reaching effects of issues such as fishing subsidies—every nation has them at some level—make discussing these issues challenging. Kreier said that discussions about fisheries subsidies are complicated not just because of the interaction with science but because these discussions concern various bodies of law and systems of management regulation. Sticking points often include questions like these: “How do you decide if a stock is overfished? And who decides?”

Subsidies are just one part of the global overfishing problem. “You have all these other international arrangements out there dealing with management and related issues,” Kreier said, referring to bilateral and regional agreements various countries have worked out among themselves. “We have to come up with systems of agreement that work together.”

From the Bottom Up: The Regulators Are the Fishers

Part of the challenge of reaching international agreements on fisheries is the disconnect between the fishers and the negotiators. D.G. Webster, associate professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, said decision makers tend to react only to strong political pressures, which means that many rules are put in place too late to avoid economic and environmental damage that could be irreversible, as may be the case in the Georges Bank fisheries example mentioned above.

Regulators should take a cue from fishing communities. These communities can be very effective at devising proactive systems of fisheries management, because they generally have a limited geographic area to harvest resources from and need to avoid depleting it. Their success isn’t necessarily due to some innate virtue of fishing community members. “The main point is that the incentives are very much the issue,” Webster said. “Big owners and operators have very different incentive structures than small communities. Small communities are going to develop sustainable practices because if they don’t, they get into big trouble very quickly.” Large operators often have the option of exploring other fishing grounds, while communities do not.

Governing common resources is a long-studied phenomenon in economics. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom found that many local communities around the world have developed their own approaches to managing fisheries without government intervention. The matriarchal Haenyeo diving community of the South Korean province of Jeju Island serves as an example of how a locally managed fishery system can remain sustainable and productive for all. These female divers have intricate knowledge of their environments and the ecology of the sea beds they harvest, and each village’s democratically elected leader decides when and where divers will go and gives guidance about what to harvest and what not to harvest.

Small-scale fishing communities tend to regulate themselves in a proactive way to ensure sustainable harvests: The regulators are the fishers, and the fishers are the regulators. The fishers in a certain area today will be the same fishers in that same area tomorrow, the next day and the next year. It is in their interest to catch enough to make a living but not so much as to deplete next year’s catch.

“Reactive and proactive are two different flavors of responses, with the difference being how quickly and what signals people are responding to,” Webster said. “A proactive approach to fisheries management would include things like collecting data about how a fish stock is doing as close to real time as possible. When there are any signs that you might be approaching even maximum sustainable yield or having any kind of environmental problems, you would very quickly reduce your fishing efforts—stop fishing quite so much. Under a proactive system, you are getting a lot of signals, you are getting those signals early and then responding to them quickly.”

Webster models various methods for regulating fisheries using the action cycle/structural context framework to examine links and feedback between human and natural systems. Key aspects of this model include profit disconnects, where decision makers are insulated from economic signals of environmental harm, and power disconnects, where the people who receive signals of environmental damage first and feel their costs most acutely are marginalized politically and thus are hampered in their ability to implement solutions.

The people who depend most on a resource receive the most immediate signals about the health of that resource. Webster cites the work of Fikret Berkes of the University of Manitoba and Eranga Galappaththi of Virginia Tech, whose studies of small-scale shrimp fishing in Sri Lanka show how communities can be effective in managing fisheries on which many people depend. The Sri Lankan fishing system had a rule that if the catch fell below a certain level, all fishers would take their nets out of the water, wait a couple of weeks and then try again. The community also developed rules about not fishing during times when there were a lot of spawning shrimp.

The imperative for today’s regulators is to “narrow the profit and power disconnect,” Webster said. Regulators must avail themselves of the signals received by fishing communities in order to draft rules that proactively protect fisheries. In an ideal world, perhaps, fishing communities would have more direct control over the fisheries they use. But fishing communities today often lack the political power necessary to assert such control. Also, a community-centered approach probably would not be very effective for managing fisheries on the high seas. This is why leveraging the work of the WTO and other international bodies to combat overfishing is so important.

From Biome to Table

Sri Lankan fishing communities came up with their own solutions to modulate catches and enact size limitations to enable animals to mature and successfully spawn, thereby ensuring the sustainability of the resource. The tragedy is that it so often takes too long for government regulators to achieve some sort of harmony with fishing communities. This failure leaves a lot of economic dislocation and personal suffering in its wake.

“It’s frustrating when you are pointing out the stocks where fleets need to stop fishing so much and the diplomats and the politicians aren’t listening to you,” Webster said. Still, she acknowledged that these decision makers may have complex and often conflicting constituencies they need to serve. “Their job is the politics and they have to work within the politics. My job is the science. However, the more I have studied this, the more I understand that if you want the politicians to listen to scientists, in the end, you have to have the political will and you have to have some powerful interest groups or the public pushing on those politicians as well.”

The story of the dolphin-safe labels on tuna cans shows that consumers can be persuaded to adjust their preferences in light of environmental concerns. Such successes are most often due to a collaboration between government and business where there is a population willing and able to express itself economically and politically about what it wants on the dinner table. Recent moves toward international agreements suggest there is a willingness to cooperate globally to solve the world’s overfishing problem. The nod toward international cooperation combined with key lessons from local communities and with scaling up new technologies may help stop global overfishing.

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