Protecting International Fisheries
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global marine fisheries production in 2014 amounted to 81.5 million tons, a figure that the organization characterizes as being relatively stable, with little variation in recent years despite a slight upward trend. However, the FAO also found that the state of the world’s fish stocks has not improved overall, and that more than 30% of global fisheries were being harvested at biologically unsustainable rates. Alarmingly, there has been significant concern that the FAO’s numbers are actually the product of underreporting by fish producers, with “real” catches exceeding FAO estimates by as much as 50%, with a correlated increase in the percentage of unsustainably harvested fisheries. And, while many nations have recognized the importance of conserving fish stocks within their territorial waters or the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, not all have the means or the will to create and enforce effective solutions to combat overfishing. Moreover, outside the Exclusive Economic Zone, no state has the jurisdiction to enforce what regulations they have seen fit to implement.
The problem is threefold. In the first place, it is difficult to monitor most fish stocks with any degree of certainty. Even where the basic life-cycle of the species in question is understood, the impossibility of direct observation of the fish themselves in their underwater environment means that populations can only be assessed indirectly, by measuring the size and age of caught fish and extrapolating total species health. This process is fraught with uncertainty, especially since marine ecosystems are only incompletely understood. Second, underreporting of fish catches leads to an unwarrantedly optimistic view of global fisheries health. This underreporting stems from failure to take account of “bycatch” (marine creatures or even seabirds that are taken but discarded as undesirable), as well as from overfishing and illegal fishing operations. Third, direct environmental damage that results from certain fishing techniques such as bottom trawling, as well as more general ocean habitat degradation from human activity, is a severe danger not only to the health of fisheries stocks, but to the human populations who depend on them.
It is the task of the Environmental Committee to determine how best to approach the problem of international fisheries management. Some groups have proposed establishing marine sanctuaries, within which fishing is prohibited, in an effort to allow populations to rebound. Banning of especially destructive fishing techniques, or those which indiscriminately affect many species other than the target species, has also been proposed. Establishing quotas for tonnage of fish caught per year is another possibility. In all of these cases, the logistics of enforcement are difficult: the ocean is vast, and fishing vessels, while numerous, are widely dispersed, making direct supervision impossible. Moreover, many nations have a significant economic stake in ensuring the success of their fishing fleets, and will seek to evade or otherwise ignore catch quotas. Aquaculture, or “fish farming”, comprises a growing portion of the world’s total fish production, but is a technology in its relative infancy whose scope is limited to certain species and whose environmental impact is unclear. And the overall health of the oceans, to which the viability of fish stocks is inextricably linked, is a concern—from mercury contamination of tuna to the vast floating archipelagos of plastic and other human garbage. The Environmental Committee must consider what to recommend to nations for their own territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones, as well as what to recommend as measures applicable to international waters where no single state has the authority to act.