There has recently been a healthy debate around 30x30, or the aim to protect 30% of the earth by 2030.
In the last blog installment, I summarized how California and the US are applying marine protected areas (MPAs) and other fisheries management tools so effectively that 99 percent of American wild-caught seafood, by volume, is sustainable - not overfished or undergoing overfishing. But what about other areas, particularly the high seas?
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established a sovereign boundary out 200 miles into the ocean from the coastline of countries. Countries have full control of marine resources within that exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but beyond that 200 mile boundary are areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), also known as and hereafter referred to as "the high seas". The high seas are home to highly migratory species (HMS) with some being important to fishermen and global food security like tuna, and others being iconic and key to biodiversity - charismatic megafauna like whale sharks (Rhincodon typus). These animals travel great distances throughout their lives moving in and out of EEZs and the high seas. If one country does a great job of managing HMS, but the neighboring country does not, then those species can be subject to overfishing. This makes multi-national agreement on fisheries management critical for HMS.
We have multi-national forums designed to manage HMS on the high seas called regional fisheries management organizations or RFMOs (we're starting to get into an alphabet soup, but these are all key acronyms when talking about effective management of MPAs). RFMOs are in place for much of our oceans, cover nearly all commercially relevant fish species, and are an alphabet soup in their own right. For tropical and subtropical zones with an emphasis on tuna species like skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye, albacore and bluefin, we have the WCPFC (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission) and IATTC (Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission) in the Pacific, ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) in the Atlantic, IOTC (Indian Ocean Tuna Commission) in the Indian Ocean, and CCSBT (Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna ) in the Southern Ocean. For temperate and polar species we have SPRFMO (South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization) and CCAMLAR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) in the south and NAFO (Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization) and CCBSP (Convention on the Conservation and Management of Pollock Resources in the Central Bering Sea) in the north, among others.
Tropical and subtropical tuna (source):
Temperate and polar regions (source):
The members of the RFMOs consist of the bordering states and other countries involved in fishing those areas, also known as distant water fleets. Distant water fleets are dominated by China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the EU/Spain, and Indonesia who account for 77% of high seas catch with longline and purse seine for tuna, jigging squid, and trawling for deep bottom fish being most common. Representatives from coastal and distant water fleet countries sit around the table at the RFMOs to negotiate and agree to conservation measures that apply to all members and are designed to manage fish stocks at sustainable levels. Things don't always go to plan but we have recently witnessed the power of these bodies to find consensus and enact protocols for enforcement. For instance, an early December failure of the IATTC to agree on 2021 conservation measures led to diplomatic intervention and an extraordinary session later in the month enacted the necessary conservation measures. Minutes and reports of these meetings are available online and subject to oversight by the general public, advocacy groups and industry.
The US or any other country making a 30x30 proclamation for the high seas is meaningless without agreement from our brothers and sisters who share these waters. Multi-national agreement is tough, and enforcement of agreed conservation measures on the high seas even more so. This makes RFMOs imperfect, but they are the institutional tools we have to work with, are improving over time, and the right venue for any discussion regarding high seas MPAs. It is also important to note that MPAs on the high seas have to be enormous by design to have any quantifiable benefit for HMS species like tuna, making other management tools like time/area closures, catch limits, and capacity limits more realistic. We have these in various forms and stages in each of the RFMOs. Again, not perfect but building blocks we are trying to strengthen.
In summary, in the context of enacting legislation, executive orders, petitions, or social activism as it applies to the high seas, lets recognize what we already have and build on that while also looking to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a guide for any new legislative, non-governmental, and industry initiatives.