Like the atmosphere or the universe, the sea is an open space which, beyond coastal waters, does not belong to any particular nation or group. People have been taking food directly from the sea since the beginning of humankind. The oceans are a resource belonging to the whole planet, a shared asset for humanity, because of their vital importance to the whole world.
It is not acceptable for some nations or lobbies to claim the right to fish threatened species such as Atlantic bluefin tuna to the point of extinction, or to destroy ecosystems in the hunt for short-term profits. If a fish species disappears, it disappears for the whole human community, and this loss will be felt far beyond the individual species. Often it is the which suffers the consequences in the extremely fragile equilibrium of ocean ecosystems.
Whales do not belong to Japan or Iceland, and the Mediterranean’s sardines do not belong to Italians. They belong to the ocean.
Despite all this, today more than ever, marine stocks are deemed simple commodities, rather than a shared heritage of natural resources. In our globalized economy, fish is now one of the most commercialized products in the world.
Compared at times to a “Wild West without a sheriff,” the sector is dominated by the law of the strong. The omnipotent Japanese giant Mitsubishi has cornered 60% of the bluefin tuna market in the Atlantic, while 40% of Chile’s salmon farms are owned by just a few multinationals.
If we do not adopt a new approach to fishing and fish consumption, and move towards the global management of a shared heritage of limited resources, the dramatic social and environmental consequences of current practices risk becoming irreversible. Factors relating to technology, the law and economics have led to marine resources being seen in purely commercial terms.
The Technology Factor
Until a few decades ago, the equilibrium between how much ecosystems produced and how much humans took rested on the limited range of human activities. Fishing zones were restricted by distance or depth to the coastline and the continental shelf.
Since the 1950s, industrialization has made it possible to exploit previously inaccessible geographic areas. The mechanization of fishing devices, improved means of transport and increased activity have lead to chronic overexploitation of the seas and oceans. By now it is widely recognized that the rise of industrial fishing corresponded with the progressive decline of marine resources. Meanwhile, small-scale artisanal fishing has been practiced for thousands of years with no ill-effects on the health of ecosystems.
The Legal Factor
Mainly out of convention, the principle of liberty has dominated the law of the sea since the 17th century. The seas and the oceans are open to all and belong to no one, with the exception of a narrow strip along the coast, over which the coastal country exercises full sovereignty (three nautical miles in the 17th century, the equivalent of the range of a cannonball).
Spectacular technological progress and the riskiness of human activities meant that during the 20th century there was a sharp increase in the number of often-competing claims on the seas. This pushed the international community to put in place a common regime, broadly based on the principle of the freedom of the seas.
The last few decades have seen the adoption of legal instruments and action plans with the aim of establishing a governance system for the seas and oceans. The signing in 1982 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) marked the first significant political step towards the idea that the oceans are a common heritage of mankind. Coming into force in 1994, the convention has to date been ratified by 160 countries out of the approximately 190 which make up the international community. The agreement deals with the limits of national jurisdiction over the ocean, access to the sea, navigation, scientific research, the protection of the marine environment, the exploitation of living resources, the legal status of seabed and ocean floor resources in international waters and the resolution of conflicts. The majority of industrialized nations have ratified the convention, with the exception of the United States.
According to the law of the sea, coastal waters are made up of a zone that extends for 12 nautical miles from a country’s coast (territorial sea) and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending for 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the shore. Within the EEZ, the coastal country has “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil.” So the coastal country can regulate fishing activities, particularly by setting authorized catch volumes, and enter into commercial agreements with other countries and fishing operators.
Beyond the 200-mile limit begin international waters, or the high seas, which represent approximately 64% of the oceans’ surface area. These waters correspond to 80% of the planet’s biosphere and include vast oceanic and abyssal environments, some of the least-explored places on Earth. In international waters, the freedom to fish is dependent on the willingness of all the interested countries to cooperate to guarantee the protection and healthy management of fish stocks.
The international seabed zone, where the continental shelf drops away, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, eludes any appropriation. A “common heritage,” it must be used “for peaceful purposes” and exploited “ for the benefit of mankind as a whole.”
The adoption in 1995 of an agreement on the conservation and management of migratory fish stocks and a show that many countries are starting to take seriously the threat to the living resources of international waters. At a practical level the task of making these and other fundamental legal instruments work lies with the regional fisheries management organizations (currently 17, most established after the Second World War). But because these are voluntary institutions, because economic interests are often more powerful than the political will to protect the environment, because the zones to be controlled are immense and there is a chronic lack of funds, these organizations are generally considered to be completely inadequate. As a result, the existing international instruments are not applied in a coordinated manner and are struggling to respond to the objectives for which they were created.
The Economic Factor
In its report Trading Away Our Oceans, based on data provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations Environment Programme and the European Union, Greenpeace analyzed the effects of trade liberalization on the long-term evolution of marine resources and the economic benefits of fishing in certain countries.
The conclusion is clear: The reduction of tariffs has boosted exports and in a short period has led to an excessive and dramatic exploitation of commercial fish stocks. As a result, marine ecosystems have been destroyed and local food security threatened.
According to Greenpeace, if regulations are not soon strengthened and fisheries begin to be managed effectively, plans for untamed liberalization of the fish market must be immediately abandoned, because the resulting overexploitation of the resources has serious social and environmental consequences.
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Additionally, some countries overexploit the fish stocks of others, via commercial agreements which ignore not only the protection of biodiversity, but also the most basic rights of the people who over the centuries have developed a harmonious relationship with natural resources.
These agreements are generally between the governments of countries in the global North and the governments of poor countries, who undersell their own territorial waters, currently rich in fish but with stocks in rapid decline. Particularly common in West Africa, these practices are highly questionable in terms of both human rights and food security for the world’s poorest countries.
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The globalization and rationalization of the markets have also led to the intensive use and long-distance transport of fishmeal, made from fish edible to humans but used to feed animals, including pets.
Every year, 30 million tons of small fish (anchovies, sardines, mackerel, herring, hake, sand eels, sprats, poor cod) are processed into meal or oil to be used as feed for chickens, pigs and fish with high commercial value.
Chickens and pigs alone consume six times more fish than all U.S. consumers put together. A large quantity of fish is also used in pet food and to feed animals raised for fur. According to a recent study by an Australian university, cats alone consume some 5.3 million tonnes of fish (low estimate, not including China).
Fishmeal production and demand are constantly increasing. The biggest consumer to date is China.