Plundering Neptune’s Bounty

February 25, 2012

On February 24, 2012, Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank, gave a speech in Singapore in which he warned: “Fish stocks are crashing from overexploitation.”

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, twenty-seven percent of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited or depleted.  A further fifty-three percent are fully exploited.  Moreover, overfishing threatens the survival of over one billion people in developing countries who depend upon fish and seafood for their primary source of protein.  It is also an important source of income for poor countries, with island and coastal nations earning $25 billion a year.  In the case of many Pacific Island countries, fish make up eighty percent of total exports.

Zoellick called for “greater cooperative and integrated action around the globe.”  Under the banner “S-O-S: Save Our Seas,” the World Bank has offered to coordinate this effort through its Global Partnership for Oceans—but first, it has to raise $300 million.  If it gets the money together, which I doubt, it will establish a research program that will draw together the knowledge, experience and expertise of governments, scientific centers, NGOs, international organizations, foundations, and the private sector.

A noble gesture, but will it work?  Probably not, for a number of reasons. First, it treats the problem as a technical one with technical solutions.  Rather, it is a political and economic problem involving vested interests that have no desire to stop overfishing.  Second, it is predicated on voluntary cooperation, which is not going to happen.

This dismal state of affairs is the result of too many fishing vessels chasing too few fish. The threat comes from new technologies that allow fish to be harvested with industrial precision.  Factory ships prowl fishing grounds, using state-of-the-art sonar and helicopters, or spotter planes, to pinpoint schools of fish quickly and accurately.  These factory trawlers, up to 100 yards long, have crews of over 500 people and are accompanied by their own fleet of “catcher” boats.  The downside of all this extraordinary technology and efficiencies of scale is that industrial fishing fleets are taking fish out of the oceans faster than nature can replenish them.

The lavish investment in hi-tech fishing is helped by generous subsidies provided by major fishing countries, with the European Union being one of the worst offenders, contributing around $2 billion in fishing subsidies between 2000-2006, which went mainly to Spain, Portugal and France. Without these subsidies, global deep-sea fishing would operate at a loss, which means that it would stop.

The other barrier to effective action is that the international law of the sea allows flagged ships to fish wherever they like on the high seas, limiting only where countries have banded together to create regional treaties to protect vulnerable fishing grounds.  There are currently some thirty Regional Fisheries Management Organizations around the world, which encourage sustainable fishing by regulating catches.

There are strong economic incentives, however, to bypass these regional agreements.  As fish become scarcer, the price has gone up.  For example, in 2011, a new record was set when a 342 kilogram (752 pound) sashimi-quality bluefin tuna sold for $396,000 at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

According to a report produced by the Marine Resources Assessment Group of the UK, unregulated and illegal fishing is worth around $1.2 billion a year, with southern bluefin tuna, Patagonian toothfish, and swordfish being highly sought after.  There is therefore a lot of money to be made by fishing companies willing to work around these regional agreements.  As it turns out, this is not difficult, thanks to the availability of flags of convenience.

According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, a ship assumes the nationality of the state whose flag it flies.  It is subject to the laws of that state, which is also responsible for policing international laws wherever its vessels are located.  In international waters, however, regional agreements only apply to countries that are members of the regional fisheries management organizations.  Flags of convenience have exploited this loophole to get around fishing quotas.

Countries like Belize, Honduras, Panama, St. Vincent and the Grenadines have assiduously avoided signing any regional agreements, which explains why so many large-scale fishing vessels like to fly their flags.  And competition between countries is heating up, with Cambodia, Georgia, Sierra Leone, Vanuatu, and even landlocked Mongolia looking for a piece of the action.

The solution is not technical but is about creating a stronger global legal system to discourage overfishing, with enforceable fishing quotas and a ban on subsidies.  On this second point, such bans are well within the power of the World Trade Organization, but would require changes to its current policies—no easy task when you consider the vested interests that are happy with the status quo. What is even more difficult is reining in flags of convenience, establishing an international register, and using it to enforce quotas on fishing.

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