On November 6, 2005, the Western Australian District Court found the captain and crew of a Uruguayan-flagged fishing vessel not guilty of illegally fishing in Australian waters off Heard Island.
The vessel, the Viarsa, did not have its fishing gear in the water when it was spotted in August 2003 - although it did have 97 tonnes of the prized Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) aboard. Despite a determined effort by Australian authorities to crack down on illegal fishing, the verdict illustrates the difficulty of proving guilt in apparent fisheries violations.
Recent reports by WWF and others highlight the scale of high seas illegal fishing - about $1.2 billion per year and growing, according to the UK’s Marine Resources Assessment Group - and the expanding fleets flying flags of convenience, laundering fish to gain entry to legal markets and crewed by those accorded few basic human rights. Out of sight on distant seas, sustainable catch limits mean little.
Burgeoning illegal fishing is one reason that high seas and international fisheries may prove the ultimate sustainable management challenge. For centuries, sea fishing has been driven by new technologies, enterprising fishers and lucrative markets. Today, the law and capacity to govern these fisheries lag far behind. A further problem is that they are still global commons and cannot be owned by any country.
Although Australia shares few fish stocks with neighbouring countries, it is almost surrounded by “high seas” - waters not within exclusive economic zones and territorial areas. In addition, Australia has far-flung territories such as the Australian Antarctic Territory, Heard and MacDonald Islands and Cocos Keeling Island and plays a leading role in regional bodies, such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT). Consequently Australia has a strong interest in, and responsibility for, high seas and international fisheries.
Given the challenges, high seas and international fisheries can only be sustained through a very concerted effort in which science and technology will play a role - though not a leading role.
The first legal steps to better management were taken through the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement. Australia has ratified this agreement but many countries have yet to do so, including many significant fishing nations. The slow pace of ratification means that some countries are not prepared to act on its provisions.
Through the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, countries have also agreed to a number of non-binding international plans of action and codes that cover areas such as illegal, unregulated and underreported fishing. It is now time to implement these codes, rather than put more efforts into developing new instruments.
The Fish Stocks Agreement emphasises improving the work of regional and national fisheries management bodies - the most appropriate level to manage high seas and international fisheries. Australia has taken a lead role in bodies such as CCAMLR and CCSBT, which combine the national and regional interests that supply some of the “ownership” missing from the high seas resources. Such bodies need also to take responsibility for marine conservation and could, over time, develop more into regional ocean management bodies.
A strong case can be made that marine conservation should take a higher profile than resource exploitation in some high seas and shared resource areas where the sustainable take is likely to be low and the conservation and scientific value of the ecology high. Sea mounts and realms of iconic marine life, such as sea turtles and marine mammals, could be designated as marine protected areas.
The globalised nature of fishing, however, calls for more than regional and national management bodies. Seafood consumers and responsible private companies must also play their part. Market-based measures, that certify fisheries products have been caught legally, are being developed through industry-led initiatives, as are efforts by port states to trap illegal fishing vessels or transhipped product.
Scientific advice has a vital role to play in high seas fish stock and environmental assessment but the challenges of gathering accurate information are huge. International collaborative efforts are paramount and regional management bodies need to decide how they will source the objective scientific advice they need.
Technology should play a larger role in the surveillance and enforcement of high seas management. Yet enforcement authorities across society are playing technology catch-up as they grapple with the explosion of illegal activities.
Despite the huge challenges of managing the world’s high seas fisheries, an alignment of actions could make a difference. Seafood consumers and concerned citizens can take greater care about what they eat; the Australian government can continue to show leadership on responsible national, regional and international fisheries management; and scientists can help solve the problems of resource and environment assessment and illegal activities.
This article is a personal opinion and does not represent the views of any organisation. First published in ScienceAlert