Editorial Board

Leave the High Seas to the Fish

Then coastal fisheries could thrive again.

Stocks are diminishing.

Photographer: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

The high seas -- all that deep water beyond 200 nautical miles from a coastline -- are this planet’s last frontier. And like all previous frontiers, they’re ripe for plunder. But there may be a surprisingly simple solution to the scourge of overfishing on the high seas: a ban on commercial fishing in international waters.

The proposition may sound radical, but it has the backing of scientists who have shown how much a ban could restore coastal fisheries and the global fishing industry. In fact, it could raise the value of the world’s fisheries by $13 billion.

The world has tacitly approved high-seas fishing because it has long been assumed that, without it, the global catch would not be adequate to meet demand. Some 10 million tons of fish, about 12 percent of the worldwide total, are caught on the high seas each year. Fishermen have pushed past depleted coastal fisheries to take coveted bluefin tuna, shark and swordfish in great quantities.

But stocks have been thinning out, with tuna and mackerel declining by 60 percent in the past half century. And now two California scientists have shown that a high-seas fishing ban would boost populations of migratory fish by 42 percent, more than enough to restock coastal fisheries.

The high seas would become, as one group of researchers put it, the world’s fish bank.

Even if the idea is simple, making it work wouldn’t be. One issue is that the benefits would not be spread evenly around the globe, accruing mainly to the majority of coastal countries that don’t fish the high seas. (The relatively small number that do -- just 10 countries are responsible for 62 percent of the high-seas catch -- includes such powerful nations as the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Spain.) But countries that do fish the high seas would still see more fish closer to their coasts, and their governments could end their subsidies to the high-seas fishing industry, which requires bigger ships and more fuel.

Enacting such a ban would also be a challenge. No single country has jurisdiction, so a United Nations process would be needed. Countries have already created marine protected areas covering nearly 4 percent of the world’s oceans, close to their coasts. A high-seas ban would be like one big international marine protected area.

Or, countries could agree to create a number of somewhat smaller ones: protected zones that cover heavy-fishing areas, though not the entire high seas. Enforcement would not be a difficult as it might seem, given how easy technology has made it to track fishing vessels globally.

Either way, the benefit to humankind -- not just those who catch fish, or even just those who eat fish, but anyone who believes in keeping Planet Earth a sustainable place -- would be worth it.

    --Editors: Mary Duenwald, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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