Shallow International Law Can’t Protect the Deep Sea
These days the UN General Assembly is discussing the adoption of a declaration calling for an immediate moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawl fishing on the high seas, at least until legally-binding regimes for the effective conservation and management of fisheries and the protection of biodiversity on the high seas can be developed, implemented and enforced. The measure has been proposed by Australia and a number of Pacific Countries, and it is crucially endorsed not only the US, but also the European Community, whose oversized and over-subsidized fleet fishes heavily off the six continents (Antarctica included).
In deep-sea bottom trawl fishing one or two fishing boats comb the bottom of the sea by dragging trawl nets weighted down on the sea floor by steel plates, tires, and whatnot. The net can be as large as several miles. It is a very indiscriminate and destructive fishing practice. It reduces ocean floors to deserts. The irony of it all is that we are destroying resources even before we discover them, as we just started exploring oceans’ depths.
Let’s leave aside the fact that any ban decided by the General Assembly will be in the form of a declaration, hence not-binding. Let’s also gloss over the fact that some countries engaging in this practice are not even members of the UN for well known reasons (i.e. Taiwan). Let’s try to be optimist, for once. Let’s assume for a second that the ban will be adopted, and that it will have bite, and that it will be widely observed, particularly by those countries for whom it is meant. After all, they are relatively few.
The fact is that deep-sea trawling is just one aspect, and arguably not even the most crucial, of a much large problem: the desertification of oceans. If you are not a coral tree hugger like me, but one of those humans concerned about their own well-being foremost, at least the rapid depletion of fisheries should concern you.
When the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was negotiated, in the 1970s, the hot issue was humankind running short of minerals. The future was in deep-sea nodules (and outer space after that). To ensure everyone could have a fair share of the bounty on and below ocean floors, the LOS Convention established elaborated mechanisms and institutions to manage them.
We all know what happened. Prices of many of those metals today are a fraction of what happened to be in the 1970s, thus, for the time being, there is little incentive to take the trouble and dig for them deep in the oceans.
The problem of managing marine living resources sustainably was not as important or urgent. The issue was addressed first by giving coastal states exclusive rights over a 200-mile wide stretch of sea, and second by leaving it to states to subsequently agree on management measures through regional agreements. However, on the one hand only a few states have shown to have the will and capacity to enforce laws in vast swaths of coastal seas, while on the other hand the effectiveness of regional agreements is sapped by free-riders from outside the area.
We are running out of fish before we run out of copper and manganese. Considering the pace at which oceans have been vacuumed empty of the most commercially attractive species, it is clear that the LOS convention, and the various regional and special agreements, have spectacularly failed to ensure proper protection of wild species. The future seems to be of a dozen of antibiotic-filled, tasteless, farm-raised species instead of the cornucopia offered by nature.
For how long can oceans remain a free-for-all zone? Is a ban on deep-sea trawling only nibbling at a problem? When a single tuna can fetch on the market tens of thousands of dollars, who is going to take the chance to leave it alone to perhaps catch it fattier and larger another day? Perhaps, the only way out of this “tragedy of the commons” is extending states’ rights beyond the 200-mile band to cover eventually all oceans. More likely, we need some new ideas, pronto.
In the meantime, we can all do our own part by being more careful when we order at the restaurant. Bon appetit!
P.s. This is my favorite TV show.