Fishing on the High Seas

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | January 29, 2010 11:01 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservation, Marine Science
MORE ABOUT: fishering, joel barkan

Comments (4)

  1. Stanley H. Tweedle

    How much coral is left in the oceans, nowadays? The percentage, ever since humans started polluting the Earth’s oceans, how much?

  2. Gaythia

    Another monetary mechanism for attempting to discourage non sustainable fishing are efforts to curtail purchases from inappropriate sources.

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch program that produces guides that attempts to encourage sustainable consumption:

  3. Joel Barkan

    Stanley: a 2006 NOAA report estimated that about 10% of the world’s coral reefs are dead. That number could climb to as high as 50% by 2030, though, with continued degradation from pollution and destructive fishing practices. Also, as we emit more carbon into the atmosphere, the ocean continues to absorb a good amount of that carbon and becomes more acidic. The acidification of our oceans makes it difficult for animals with calcium carbonate shells, like corals, to form strong enough shells to survive. Scripps is putting a lot of its resources into ocean acidification research…

  4. These observations paint a gloomy picture of our future. Unfortunately, nobody seems willing to suggest population control (human), though human overpopulation is at the bottom of all our crises. If it is not brought under control, we may end up as the kind of society depicted in dystopic science fiction, subsisting on algae raised in giant tanks and living in tiny compartments from which we are released in rotation on an alphabetical schedule.
    In brief, more people=more consumption of resources overall, and less of everything for everyone, plus greater pollution.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


See More

Collapse bottom bar