Ocean Governance: The Beginnings of Reform


Earth Journalism Network, Washington, DC

Fisheries management occurs at the intersection of science and policy. Because many fish species are highly migratory and do not recognize national borders, it is necessary for nations to reach international agreements in order to come to a rational plan for fisheries exploitation. But for most of human history, such accords were impossible because nations had no coherent agreement on who owned the ocean in the first place. To some extent, the normalization of ocean ownership can be considered the first step in fisheries management and only in the last quarter century has some degree of rationalization of this vital component being realized. Prior to the 1970s, nations had little or no jurisdiction over the open ocean. In 1609 a Dutch political philosopher named Hugo Grotius wrote the treatise “Mare Liberum,” or “The Freedom of the Seas.” In this work Grotius asserted that oceans, beyond the near shore of a given nation, should be free for all to use. For 350 years, this treatise was the de facto law governing fisheries exploitation.

Exclusive Economic Zones of the World | Areas in black are high seas waters while red areas red are disputed regions.| Source: MarineRegions.org, 2013

This began to change in the 1950s as individual nations, finding their fisheries resources considerably depleted, began declaring exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Chile and Peru, which are home to the world’s largest fishery (Peruvian anchoveta), were the first nations to declare territorially exclusivity from the shoreline out to 200 nautical miles (roughly 370 kilometers). Other nations followed suit, notably the United States, which unilaterally declared a 200-mile EEZ in 1976 as part of a sweeping fisheries reform law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Eventually the United Nations codified the concept of EEZs into international law, in what became known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). The treaty was drafted in 1982 and came into effect in 1994. 164 nations have signed the treaty including the People’s Republic of China. To date, the United States has not signed.