Under international law the high seas, which span 64% of the surface of the ocean, are defined as “the common heritage of mankind”. This definition might have provided enough protection if the high seas were still beyond mankind’s reach. But the arrival of better trawlers and whizzier mapping capabilities over the past six decades has ushered in a fishing free-for-all. Hauls from the high seas are worth $16 billion annually. Deprived of a chance to replenish themselves, stocks everywhere pay the price: almost 90% are fished either to sustainable limits or beyond. And high-seas fishing greatly disturbs the sea bed: the nets of bottom trawlers can shift boulders weighing as much as 25 tonnes….
A fresh approach is needed. Slashing fishing subsidies is the most urgent step. In total these come to $30 billion a year, 70% of which are doled out by richer countries. By reducing fuel costs, subsidies bring the high seas within reach for a few lucky trawlers, largely from the developed world. Just ten countries, including America, France and Spain, received the bulk of the bounty from high-seas catches between 2000 and 2010, even though Africa has more fishermen than Europe and the Americas combined. That is unfair and short-sighted.
The next step is to close off more areas to fishing. As of 2014 less than 1% of the high seas enjoyed a degree of legal protection. A review of 144 studies published since 1994 suggests that to preserve and restore ecosystems, 30% of the oceans should be designated as “marine protected areas” (MPAs). Individual countries can play their part, by creating reserves within territorial waters: last year Britain created the world’s largest MPA, an area bigger than California off the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. But to get anywhere near that 30% share, mechanisms must be found to close off bits of the high seas, too. The UN’s members have rightly agreed to work out how to do so…
So in parallel with efforts to protect wild stocks, another push is needed: to encourage the development of aquaculture, the controlled farming of fish. In 2014, for the first time, more fish were farmed for human consumption than were caught in the wild; farmed-fish output now outstrips global beef production. Unfortunately, feedstocks are often poor and storage facilities inadequate. …Eventually, efficient fish-farming will be the best guardian of stocks on the high seas.
Marine Management: Net Positive, Economist, July 16, 2016, at 13