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Researchers say high seas ban could lead to fairer fisheries

Posted on 12 February 2015

Closing the high seas to commercial fishing to protect ocean ecosystems could be catch-neutral and distribute fisheries income more equitably among the world’s maritime nations, according to new research involving the University of York.

Salmon fishing (credit: Brian Hoffman, Flickr)

Closing the high seas to commercial fishing to protect ocean ecosystems could be catch-neutral and distribute fisheries income more equitably among the world’s maritime nations, according to new research involving the University of York.

The high seas are the region of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction.They cover 64 per cent of the oceans and 45 per cent of the surface of the planet and are governed under international law and agreements. In practice, they represent the least regulated and least protected place on the planet.

High seas fisheries target species such as tuna, swordfish, sharks as well as deepwater fish including grenadiers and scabbardfish. This trend has intensified greatly in recent decades in response to declining nearshore stocks and rising prices of prime species such as tuna.

The University of British Columbia-led study, which involved Professor Callum Roberts, of the Environment Department at York, shows that there would likely be positive economic benefits for the majority of countries if the high seas were closed to fishing until regulations are strengthened and enforcement improves.

The analysis of fisheries data indicates that if increased spillover of fish stocks from protected international waters were to boost coastal catches by 18 per cent, a conservative projection, current global catches would be maintained. When the researchers modelled less conservative estimates of stock spillover, catches in coastal waters surpassed current global levels.

Professor Roberts said: “The high seas are like the wild west -- overfishing is rampant and many boats fly flags of convenience from rogue nations to avoid regulation. Closing the high seas to fishing would mean that high seas fish could be caught as they pass on their migrations into national waters, where management is better, with no overall loss in catch.

Such an approach would spread the benefits of high seas fishing more widely too, since at present a minority of countries with well-equipped ocean going fleets extract the majority of benefits, overexploiting stocks at a large cost to the rest of the world.”

U. Rashid Sumaila, director of the UBC Fisheries Economics Research Unit who led the study, added:  “We should use international waters as the world’s fish bank. Restricting fisheries activities to coastal waters is economically and environmentally sensible, particularly as the industry faces diminishing returns.”

Published in Scientific Reports, the study indicates that a high-seas moratorium would improve fisheries income distribution among maritime nations. Currently, ten high seas fishing nations capture 71 per cent of the landed value of catches in international waters.

Under all scenarios considered by the researchers, European Member States, Group of Eight nations, and least developed fishing nations would benefit the most from a closure. Under a catch-neutral scenario, the United States, Guam and the United Kingdom would benefit the most, each with potential increases in landed values of more than $250 million (USD) per year. Canada would see an increase of $125 million (USD) per year.

The authors acknowledge that implementing a high seas ban would be a major undertaking, but argue that the ongoing expansion of human activities into the oceans will soon require major reform to the governance of international waters regardless. Penalties imposed on illegal fishing could offset administrative and operational costs.

The researchers, who also included scientists from Simon Fraser University (British Columbia) and the University of Oxford, examined global fish catch and landed value data to determine how much fish is caught in the high seas and how much is caught in coastal waters (nations’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones). The researchers then used models to compare likely increases in coastal catches driven by increased biomass spillover from protected areas and losses from the closure of high seas fisheries.

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