The current piecemeal governance of the high seas is facilitating destruction of ocean life: we urgently need an international treaty to protect these unique ecosystems
Far from land, beyond national jurisdictions, the high seas belong to everyone and no one at the same time – lawlessness is pretty much the only rule that prevails.
Currently, a complicated web of international bodies and treaties deal with activities on the high seas, including fishing, deep sea mining, and shipping, but these vary greatly in their mandates and their jurisdictions often overlap. This lack of oversight allows illegal fishing and overfishing to thrive; threatens marine wildlife and fish populations; and undermines coastal communities’ livelihoods and food security.
Yet despite decades of discussions, we still lack an over-arching treaty protecting international waters from exploitation and irreversible damage. Last month, the fourth round of discussions between UN member states to agree on a new UN high seas ocean treaty once again ended without agreement and, worryingly, without a schedule set for further discussions.
The painfully slow pace of these talks is stalling progress on protecting our ocean from loss of wildlife, illegal fishing and catastrophic overexploitation, and the longer these negotiations are drawn out, the more marine wildlife we lose.
Whale killing on a Chinese industrial fishing vessel
At EJF we’ve spoken to the people who know first-hand what happens on the high seas: the crew abord the world’s distant water fishing vessels. In our interviews with hundreds of fishers, they told us of cruel, wasteful and illegal practices, carried out at the scale of ecosystem destruction.
Men aboard vessels from all around the world have reported illegally finning thousands of sharks every trip, cutting off their more valuable fins and throwing the bodies back to drown.
In fact, the rates of shark finning are so high that almost every time we talk to high-seas fishers they report these atrocities. A crewmember aboard a Chinese vessel told us: “[We caught] were around 40-50 [sharks] every day. We took only the fins and threw away the bodies. There were also some sharks that we took the body too, but only a few of them, we used it as bait. Mostly we threw them away. We used any kind of sharks, we took a small part of them for bait, then we threw away the rest.”
In a vicious cycle of wasteful cruelty, crew also told us of dolphins riding the bow wave being harpooned to be used as bait for sharks. This practice by distant water fishing fleets is a potentially serious and hidden conservation threat, since the dolphin meat itself is never landed or traded, so the impacts are never recorded. In one case, the crew showed us photos of the slaughter of what appeared to be an entire pod of short-beaked common dolphins.
And it goes on. In 2020, we uncovered Taiwanese vessels catching and decapitating false killer whales, to remove their teeth to make necklaces – these animals are listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. The crew of these vessels also reported catching turtles, dolphins and other whales.
Again, in the same year, we revealed Korean fishing vessels illegally catching seals and clubbing them to death for their teeth, genitals and liver. Over the course of a six-month voyage, a single vessel caught about 200 seals.
Tuna catch, Thailand
This catalogue of cruel, wasteful and illegal practices is testimony to the chaos and exploitation that a lack of regulation has created on the high seas. It will continue in this manner as long as our leaders fail to agree a treaty.
Earlier this year, at the One Ocean Summit, over 100 countries agreed to achieve a robust UN treaty to protect life in the high seas – but talks have collapsed yet again.
We urgently need a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas to prevent loss of wildlife, and clear regulation of industrial fishing. An international, legally binding treaty could put an end to the current chaotic and fragmented governance framework.
Every minute we delay, the greater the destruction and the closer our ocean ecosystems come to the point of collapse. We cannot allow this abuse to continue.
_ Sharks at a fish market, Spain_