State of high seas resources


Most baleen whales (except the Minke whale) and sperm whales are heavily overfished or depleted with some rare exceptions and some species may be beyond recovery. Attention should be given to smaller cetaceans (toothed whales and dolphins) which represent a potentially serious management problem, but also a potential for developing countries (especially, but not only, for island countries). The availability of cheap but highly efficient nylon gillnets may facilitate the intensification of fishing. Experience shows, however, that small cetaceans have been traditionally exploited in many areas of the world with little concern or effective effort to ensure sustainability. Rational exploitation of still abundant species will be hard to sell to a world opinion alerted by the poor performance of industry and international management but urgent need for food by poor populations will be hard to ignore.

Most tuna stocks in temperate or tropical waters are under heavy pressure and are intensively- to fully-fished. Some stocks are already overfished. Biological overfishing has been avoided in most stocks because of economic constraints and by transferring excess effort to other areas and oceans (South Pacific, Indian Ocean) and farther offshore on domes and fronts (thereby increasing the exploitable biomass and catchability). Extension in the Southern Ocean (on Allothunnus fallai) may be the next and last move. Competition between traditional tuna fishing and emerging tuna fishing in some developing countries is increasing while other countries have expressed willingness to enter the tuna fishing business. The control of international effort levels is becoming a major problem. In the absence of explicit considerations of resource allocation for many of these highly migratory resources, conflicts are bound to increase progressively leading to overfishing. This leads to a re-opening, by developing coastal countries, of the question of the "highly migratory" status of tunas and on their rights and responsibility in managing these species while they reside in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).

The question of salmon management has many different facets. Offshore, the agreements on high seas fishing must be improved in order to ensure that the agreed rights of the countries of origin are respected. Inland there is a major problem of pollution and degradation of spawning grounds, especially in the Atlantic. Overall, however, with the progress of environmental concerns and in stocking techniques, the future looks bright provided the production through culture does not offset the demand. An interesting question is related to the competition between national ranching programmes for the productivity of the central ocean. That productivity is limited. There may be an upper limit to its salmon rearing capacity and states can try to appropriate an otherwise open access resource (the open ocean productivity) by intensifying their ranching industry. When will the system be saturated at the present rate of expansion? What would be the effect on other competing resources (squids, pomfrets etc.) and predators (seals, sharks etc.)? What will be the effect of offshore competition between wild and cultured strains? Will there be a need for an agreement between the states concerned on numbers of fingerlings to be released to avoid economic waste?

Oceanic squids offer obvious potential for development on new species and areas while the main species already targeted at are fully fished. With the present conflicts about driftnetting, possibilities to develop commercial fisheries are limited but exist. The oceanic sharks may offer more potential for concern than for sustainable development and research on these species is badly needed. The oceanic horse mackerel appear heavily fished locally. Its future is obscured by the lack of an international mechanism for its management and co-operation in research and coastal countries are presently expressing their concerns.

In the Antarctic, depletion of commercial species has been serious and the situation is improving slowly. Krill is the exception, saved probably by the difficulty to use it profitably. Demersal resources extending on high seas shelves are fully fished if not overfished. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the pressure on Orange Roughy has increased dramatically, in all oceans, including on sea mounts and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge but little information has been made available (if any).

Progress in net-making technology should facilitate the intensification of the exploitation by island countries of non-conventional large pelagic species, such as dolphin fish, flying fish, as well as large tuna-like species presently assumed underexploited with unknown potential. However, problems of accidental capture of low-resilience and ecologically sensitive species could emerge as in the large-scale driftnet fisheries. The relative failure of international management to establish sustainable fisheries in many areas, despite the high quality of the research sometimes provided, is clearly demonstrated by the dwindling resource base, excessive catching capacity, uncontrolled transfers of fishing effort between resources and oceans, depletion of many highly valuable resources, including those in the Antarctic, and possibly beyond recovery for some whales.

The fact that uncontrolled development of fishing effort leads to serious ecological, social and economic problems has now been widely acknowledged in the scientific literature and by high-level fisheries management and development authorities. In day-to-day practice, however, this verbal recognition does not always seem to translate into facts and the future of high seas resources must therefore be considered carefully. A strengthened framework for better management of high seas resources is provided by the 1995 UN Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (the UN Fish Stock Agreement) and by the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and its 1993 Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas (the Compliance Agreement). In addition, the adoption in 1999 by the FAO Committee on Fisheries of an international plan of action to curb Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU fishing) is a positive move towards improving management in both EEZs and the high seas.

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