This is the third in a series of guest posts by Joel Barkan, a previous contributor to “The Intersection” and a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The renowned Scripps marine biologist Jeremy Jackson is teaching his famed “Marine Science, Economics, and Policy” course for what may be the last time this year (along with Jennifer Jacquet), and Joel will be reporting each week on the contents of the course.
Last week, I wrote about raising fish in our own backyards using aquaculture. Today, I’ll discuss fish that don’t come from farms, but instead make their way to our dinner plates from very far away: the high seas. The high seas, or international waters, are areas more than 200 miles offshore from any country and thus not regulated by any individual nation. The huge factory fishing fleets of rival nations compete on the high seas to out-fish the other boats, reenacting Garret Hardin’s famous “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the middle of the ocean.
This week, it was my turn, along with three other classmates, to present to the rest of the class about high seas fishing. We highlighted two different fishing methods: drift netting and bottom trawling. Drift nets pluck fish like tuna and swordfish from the top of the water column, while bottom trawls drag the seafloor for valuable halibut and orange roughy. Both methods are indiscriminate: you’re almost as likely to catch a common dolphin in a drift net as an albacore tuna, and bottom trawling is akin to plowing a whole forest just to harvest a few edible mushrooms. Both sound pretty bad, right? Consider this: high seas drift netting was banned in 1991 by a UN resolution, but several countries still bottom trawl within international waters to this day.
The moratorium on high seas drift net fishing succeeded because most countries agreed that the fishery’s immense bycatch was unsustainable. In class, we discussed what might need to happen to raise the necessary two-thirds majority for a similar UN resolution on destructive high seas bottom trawling. Striking images of charismatic animals like dolphins and albatrosses tangled in nets made drift netting an easy target for a moratorium. How can we raise awareness about a dark ecosystem no one sees and obscure species like deep-water coral that most people don’t care about?
A potential solution may be tied to that familiar influential source: money. Countries like Spain, Russia, Iceland, and a few others continue to bottom trawl on the high seas because they profit from it. Opposition from these nations has stymied efforts to ban deep sea trawling in international waters. Can we give these countries economic incentives to change their ways? Perhaps the deep sea trawlers would be willing to employ new gear types or limit their trawling to State waters if a wealthy country such as the U.S. or Australia subsidized their gear overhauls.
It’s obvious that conservation takes a backseat to political and economic influences when dealing with multilateral agreements. Let’s hope the superpowers can work something out before we turn our shared deep sea ecosystems into wastelands.