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In his article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, ecologist Garrett Hardin argues that a jointly-held resource is destined to be over-exploited rather than preserved in order to serve the self-interest of individuals. Beyond State controlled territorial bounds of sea beds where no nation holds exclusive ownership, the high seas cover almost 50% of the earth’s surface and provide a cornerstone for our planet which is vital to all lifecycles. Furthermore, 3 billion people rely on marine and costal biodiversity for their livelihoods and the ocean supports an industry worth $3 trillion per year. However, the 21st century faces a serious man-made threat to the decline of ocean conditions, with resources from the high seas being pushed to their limits. Fish stocks are being overexploited, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is occurring on a huge scale. As a result, there are calls that a set of global rules and regulations for areas beyond national jurisdiction to help protect biodiversity are needed, as current regulations are clearly insufficient for appropriately preserving the high seas. A recent report published by the Global Ocean Commission outlines plans for international reforms to step up the fight against IUU fishing as part of a five year plan to help rescue the ocean.

Why is IUU so harmful?

Ana Vigueras

Ana Vigueras

While the problem of over-fishing is not solely caused by IUU activity, and is also the result of many factors such as poor management being made by fisheries at national levels, IUU widely undermines efforts taken to conserve fishing stocks. With an estimated 11-26 million tonnes of catch and activity worth up to $23.5bn every year (EJF), this global fishing piracy makes up almost 20% of the total global catch per annum. For some of the poorest countries in the world who highly depend on local fisheries for revenues, livelihoods and food, IUU fishing is imposing significant economic costs to their industries. One of the most common practices undertaken is bottom trawling, where heavy nets are dumped onto the sea bed, dragged along and then scoops up all marine life while destroying the sea-bed habitat. After this, only around 25% of commercially valuable catch will be kept, with the remaining by-catch being dumped back into the ocean having already died. Despite these issues, IUU has been proven to resist any major attempts in being controlled by international regulations as a lack of political resolve for its root causes isn’t being tackled on a global level and it thrives on weak governance. Furthermore, the large financial incentives of IUU fishing have led to a persistent industry where a never ending demand for its “products” exists.

Flags of Convenience

The process of IUU is made possible through ship-owners associating a Flags of Convenience (FOC) with their vessels, where ships register with and fly the flag of a country other than the owner’s home country. This allows FOC ships to have no real nationality and a freedom to employ cheap labour, resulting in workers being unprotected by a single trade union and being victims of low wages, forced into working long hours and operating in unsafe working conditions. FOC provide a cover that allows vessels to engage in IUU activities and evade management and conservation regulations for high seas fisheries. While the country registered to the FOC vessel is ultimately responsible for its activities, they will often impose little or no control over the vessel.

Combating IUU

The Global Ocean Commission outlines various efforts in their report which need to be taken in order to start combating IUU activities in both the high seas and national waters. These recommendations focus on the three main areas where IUU can be tackled: at sea; in port; and getting fish onto the table of customers. They call upon the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), whose purpose is to regulate the framework for shipping, to ensure that every fishing vessel in any kind of waters around the world must have an IMO number as a mandatory requirement to allow traceability. Furthermore, they look at the possibility of developing a real-time global-information sharing platform for data where shipping vessels and their activities can be monitored and traced in order to deter IUU. This would allow coordinated lists of suspected IUU fishing vessels to be shared and maintained amongst law enforcements, fisheries management and security agencies.

Regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) are organisations which have a particular interest in either a specific kind of fish, or a certain area of water and all the fish stocks within this area. Many have active management powers to limit fishing quantities and control obligations, so the Global Ocean Commission report also calls for RFMOs to ban the transshipment of fish at-sea, as well as encouraging civil society organisations to perform as independent RFMOs and watchdogs, and then for authorities at all levels to cooperate with them. This would allow more IUU fishing vessels to be identified and refused access at ports and therefore not allowing their fish to enter the market. The report also recommends that a commitment must be taken by the seafood industry in order to ensure that food which is ending up on their customers plates has been sustainably-sourced.

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While IUU is a major problem in conserving the ocean, it is only one of eight essential and wide scoping proposals set out by the Global Ocean Commission:

1. UN Sustainable Development Goal for the Ocean – Calling upon all UN Member States to agree on a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal for the Ocean. This would helps towards putting the ocean of ocean health at the forefront of the post-2015 UN Development agenda.
2. Governing the High Seas – Current ocean governance isn’t supporting a sustainable and equitable use of resources. Commitments already made are not being implemented effectively enough, and strengthening governance is essential to break out of the current cycle of poorly managed oceans.
3. No More Over-fishing – Ending Harmful High Sea Subsidies. A government subsidy for a fishing vessel lowers the operating costs and therefore increases the incentives to carry on an otherwise uneconomically viable operation. For example, tax exemption, fuel subsidies, and fishing port construction and renovation programmes all allow over-fishing to thrive.
4. Plastics – Keeping Them Out of the Ocean.
5. Offshore Oil and Gas – Establishing binding international safety standards and liability.
6. The Global Ocean Accountability Board – To establish a board which monitors the progress towards achieving these proposals.
7. Creating a High Seas Regeneration Zone – If high seas conditions aren’t shown to improve, then the Global Ocean Commission propose that industrial fishing should be restricted to create a regeneration zone for the high seas.

While it’s impossible to know if following a paint-by-colours report would be any more effective than previous attempts, the risk of in-action and simply continuing as we are presents the greatest possible threat to ocean. It is therefore essential to generate support within the UN to ensure that ocean health is an important topic for the development agenda in order to stop fish resources being completely depleted as a result of over-fishing and IUU. In order for any of the proposals to be realised, the first and second proposal play an important step in developing political power in order to start working towards achieving any progress. If you would like to show your support for the recommendations made by the Global Ocean Commission, you can sign their petition in preparation for the United Nations (UN) discussion in September with regards to the future of the high seas.