December 10, 2009
The 400-year-old freedom of the high seas would be lost under United Nations plans to limit environmental damage.
Military forces of several nations are in discussions with conservationists over pooling surveillance resources to enforce the changes.
The “freedom of the seas” has given mariners legal rights to roam the high seas — a boundary that usually occurs 200 nautical miles from shore — at will. Specialists gathered at a London conference are saying that fishermen have been pushing the concept too far.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force in 1983 and enshrined the 17th-century concept of the freedom of the seas. But while being on the high seas puts ships outside the jurisdiction of any one country, the small print of the law dictates that nations ensure that no undue damage is caused.
“The freedom of the high seas has always been accompanied by attendant responsibilities in the Law of the Sea Convention,” said Jeff Ardron, director of the high seas programme for the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.
“They were not unfettered freedoms — they have just been treated that way. The time has come when we are finally going to implement the Law of the Sea Convention as it was intended,” he told the Natural England conference, entitled Sea Change: securing a future for Europe’s seas.
The UN General Assembly voted last week to impose strict regulations on high seas bottom-trawling vessels. Next February a UN working group will meet to discuss establishing Marine Protected Areas on the high seas to create boundaries within which fishing activities are restricted.
Fishing vessels are not required to carry the same automatic identification system that tracks the identity of merchant ships. Closing this loophole will be crucial to keeping their activities in check, said Kristina Gjerde, the high seas policy adviser for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
“On motorways we have cameras that can take pictures of who’s going too fast, but there’s nothing like that on the high seas.
“Enough governments are fed up enough with illegal fishing activities that there is a movement towards a global register of fishing vessels. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is looking to acquire one.”
National defence agencies are being brought to the table to help to enforce the rules and discussions have taken place between conservationists and the Pentagon over possible synergies in preventing overfishing, piracy and terrorism. A European Green Paper is under consideration that aims to link the maritime surveillance capabilities of member nations, including both military and fishing interests.
“It is a question of keeping track of what ships are up to,” said Mr Ardron. “If you can combine national security with other types of monitoring then it’s a win-win situation.”
A spokesman for the Royal Navy said that if approached it would look for ways to assist.
Threats to the high sea:
High seas represent 95 per cent of the global biosphere in volume and contain ecosystems, vast natural resources and unusual habitats.
Free-for-all On the high seas, countries not part of a management organisation can fish with impunity
Overfishing Organisations manage stocks but some, like the Atlantic bluefin tuna, still crash
Destructive fishing Trawling methods scrape seabeds clean
Warming waters Changing currents can leave sedentary life stranded on isolated seamounts
Acidification Ocean chemistry is changing owing to CO2
Flags of convenience Some nations register vessels with little regulation