High seas fisheries (Flickr)

World - Award-winning ocean experts call for UN to ban high seas fishing at treaty talks

The recipients of a 2023 environmental award have called on the United Nations (UN) to ban fishing on the high seas. Ocean fisheries experts Rashid Sumaila and Daniel Pauly have jointly won the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. They made the plea in an open letter ahead of critical UN treaty negotiations on the matter.

One ocean

There is only one ocean, covering some 70% of the planet. Different areas of the ocean have regional names, such as the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Some of this ocean falls under national jurisdictions, meaning countries have authority over it. These are territorial waters. Additionally, coastal nations have territorial rights over a certain amount of the ocean surrounding them, beyond their territorial waters. These are called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).

A vast amount of the ocean falls beyond territorial waters and EEZs. These are the high seas. They amount to 43% of the planet’s surface. Currently, vast swathes of the high seas are effectively lawless. This allows countries and people to exploit the ocean and its living inhabitants. So, industries like fishing are plundering these places at a shocking rate.

Between February 20 and March 3, countries are negotiating a legally-binding treaty. It will offer the global human community an opportunity to start acting more responsibly. The treaty aims to provide safeguards for marine life in the high seas. It’s the fifth round of talks on the conservation and sustainable use of the marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) treaty.

High seas fishing

Ahead of the latest round of talks, ocean and fisheries economist Sumaila and marine biologist Pauly published an open letter to the UN. Both experts work at the University of British Columbia.

In their letter, they characterised fishing on the high seas as unprofitable, destructive, and unfair. They argued, for example, that government subsidies are the only thing sustaining fishing in these waters. Broadly speaking, it’s rich countries that can afford to provide the hefty subsidies required for fishing vessels to travel far afield for extensive periods of time. Sumaila and Pauly asserted that such vessels mainly lurk in the high seas around Africa, South America and South Asia. They catch fish before they enter the territorial waters in those regions.

In other words, vessels from richer countries are scooping up vast quantities of fish. They do this before these animals can swim towards – and feed – people in poorer countries.

In June 2022, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) reached a deal to limit fishing subsidies. Member countries still need to ratify it. However, it fell short of ruling out all subsidies that enable vessels to fish excessively in far-flung locations. It does prohibit subsidies for high seas fishing in areas beyond the authority of regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). RFMOs are international organisations involving groupings of countries. They regulate regional fishing activities on the high seas. So, strictly speaking, the WTO agreement will not prohibit all subsidies for high seas fishing.

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