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Why it Makes Sense to Protect 64% of Our Ocean: The High Seas

Source: The TerraMar Project - October 19, 2017 in Featured, TMP

Why it Makes Sense to Protect 64% of Our Ocean: The High Seas
Photo: Tiago Fioreze/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

We’ve all heard stories of the ‘Wild West’ growing up. It was a time before ours. In a place where government and laws didn’t exist.

Time passed and the last wild lands on Earth have become discovered, colonized, and mapped.

But there still exists a ‘Wild West’ in today’s world. A place without proper governance and accountability. A place largely unexplored and ignored. Still wild, but faced with grave dangers.

What I’m speaking of is known by many names:

International waters

the open ocean or

trans-boundary waters.

But we will call them the High Seas. The 64 percent of our world’s oceans that lie outside of any one country’s control.

The High Seas are a global commons, belonging to every living person. They are home to some of the ocean’s most unique animals and are the least understood place on our planet.

Yet they are exploited by only a handful industrialized nations at the expense of the rest of the world.

high seas

Photo: Joachim Müllerchen/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Few Big Bullies Stealing Everyone Else’s Lunch Money

Fishermen have begun to look past the horizon and beyond to the high seas. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Countries around the world have overfished coastal fish populations.
  • An increasing world population means increasing demand for fish protein.
  • Government subsidies help to hide the real cost of fishing on the high seas.
  • New technologies make the normally treacherous journey safer and feasible.

Fishing on the High Seas is a Huge Problem

Fish don’t stay in one place. Some of the most highly valued fish in our world’s oceans, such as Tuna, spend part of their life in the high seas, and part within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of various countries. Fish don’t understand boundaries, they simply travel according to whatever force in nature guides them (food, reproduction, survival).

This being said, 67% of all the fish caught in the world each year spend time in both the high seas, and EEZs.

10 countries alone capture over 70 percent of the value in high seas fisheries.

  1. Japan
  2. South Korea
  3. Taiwan
  4. Spain
  5. USA
  6. Chile
  7. China
  8. Phillipines
  9. France
  10. Indonesia

Why should these ten countries be able to take a resource that belongs to everyone in the world? Especially when the majority of species caught spend part of their life on the high seas and part in an EEZ?

By allowing fishing on the high seas, some countries are ‘stealing’ resources that would otherwise help coastal fisheries of other countries. Or put another way, fish that belong to you through your legal interest in the High Seas.

And perhaps the saddest part of all is that the most sought-after fish caught on the high seas, such as tuna, have declined in number by 60% on average during the last 50 years.

bluefin tuna

Photo: Danilo Cedrone/NOAA/Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

If that isn’t worrisome enough, we know very little about deep ocean environments and the species that live there. What we do generally know however is that with little light and food availability in the ocean depths, the species that exist there will be slow-growing and long-lived. These are characteristics that make these animals vulnerable to fishing.

The icing on the cake of problems for the high seas is the illegal, undocumented, and unregulated fishing that plagues this massive space. While some countries can track and govern their vessels, fewer than 50% of countries are exerting effective control over high-seas fishing vessels flying their flags. 

Reason Leads to One Conclusion: We Need to Protect The High Seas

Facts are facts.

Only 12% of the world’s total fish catch comes from the high seas. And the majority of this is going to 10 countries at the expense of the rest of the world.

So why not close the high seas to fishing?

Recent research shows that if the high seas were closed to fishing, there would be an 18% increase in catches of fish that move between the high seas and EEZs around the world.

Most coastal countries ultimately stand to gain, including in particular, the world’s least developed countries.

small-scale fishing

Photo: Vaikoovery/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

This is the big point. Closing the high seas to fishing would help to reduce inequality in the world, and all in all there would be significant net benefits to go around.

And it’s not like many jobs will be lost either, large-sale fisheries like those on the high seas only employ 5-30 individuals for every million dollars invested in fishing vessels. Whereas small-scale coastal fisheries employ 500-4,000 individuals for the same million dollars.

The main issue in protecting 64% of our ocean lies in our ability to enforce this type of a marine protected area encompassing basically half of our planet.

But with advances in tracking technology and accountability of vessels at sea, the future is wide open to any possibility. 

If humans are in fact creatures of reason, then it would make nothing but sense to protect the high seas.

To view the Creative Commons license for the featured image, click here.

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