04/29/2014 10:45 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Big Fish Ideas

We have spoken often of the rapidly depleting supply of available fish for global consumption due to over-fishing, particularly in the deep ocean, the vast expanse outside the limits of national jurisdiction where large vessels, frequently confusingly flagged and owned, take fish outside of any established treaties, national limitations, regulations, quotas, or concerns that any species may be taken without limit, even to the point of extinction.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) depletes fish stocks, destroys marine habitats, distorts competition, puts honest fishers at an unfair disadvantage, and weakens coastal communities, particularly in developing countries.

The European Union (EU) which works to close the loopholes that allow illegal operators to profit from their activities describes the situation as follows:

• The EU Regulation proposes to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU entered into force on 1 January 2010. The Commission is working actively with all stakeholders to ensure coherent application of the IUU Regulation.
• Only marine fisheries products validated as legal by the competent flag state or exporting state can be imported to or exported from the EU.
• An IUU vessel list is issued regularly, based on IUU vessels identified by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations.
• The IUU Regulation also offers the possibility to blacklist states that turn a blind eye to illegal fishing activities.
• EU operators who fish illegally anywhere in the world, under any flag, face substantial penalties proportionate to the economic value of their catch, which deprive them of any profit.

Couched in bureaucratic speech, these actions are intended to confront and limit what is nothing other than criminal enterprise. The question is how to enforce these actions, along with those of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that addresses these same issues at the international level? In 2009, the UN adopted the Port State Measures Act that allows nations to deny port entry and services to foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing. The proposed treaty has 11 of the 25 signatory nations required to ratify; the U.S. Senate voted approval in April of this year. Legislation to codify and enforce must follow.

But even if we were successful in such an endeavor, will it be enough to counter the precipitous decline in fish populations? Enough to reverse this global tragedy of the commons? Recently an article in, an on-line science blog, reported a proposal by Crow White and Christopher Costello, two California research scientists, advocating a stunning idea to reverse the trend: close the high seas to fishing altogether.

"Sound like a radical notion?" the story questions. "Not according to White and Costello, who found that such a policy could actually provide a triple-bottom-line benefit, increasing not only global stocks of high-value species, but also fisheries harvests and profits from them. The idea is that closing the high seas to fishing would allow fish populations to rebuild, and because the fish migrate, it would also generate a "spillover effect" as some fish from protected international waters find their way into the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of each nation, where they could be harvested."

Using computer models, the investigators "found that closing the high seas could more than double both populations of key species and fisheries profit levels, while increasing fisheries yields by more than 30 percent. From a policy perspective, the results are incredibly important because they indicate a win-win-win--food, profit, conservation--scenario from closing the high seas; further, even though the main study focus was on the profitability of fisheries, this policy would represent possibly the largest conservation benefit ever enacted in the world's oceans."

These are some big fish ideas, the kind of policies and proposals we must embrace if we are to recover from our past excesses and mistakes. We must regulate or exclude from the market those who are indifferent to long term needs. And we must act boldly beyond that, take responsibility beyond regulation and enforcement, transcend half-measures and ineffective compromises, and reverse our thinking from short term gain to short term pain that in the end will reward us with a marine food supply equal to the world's burgeoning population and its future survival.