Lawless Frontier: High Crimes in the High Seas

Reading Time: 3 min

Did you know that illegal fishing is the third most profitable crime on the planet?

Fleets of ships are decimating and pillaging fish stocks around the world, often killing whales, dolphins and sea turtles as a by-product. The problem is corroborated by the fact that in the high seas there is no governance, yet only eight countries seem to control them, accounting for 77% of fish caught in international waters.. It’s the wild west.

One-hundred million sharks are killed each year, for their  fins. The ocean’s floor, once dotted with corals some over 5,000 years old, is being destroyed by bottom trawling–massive nets dragged across the bottom– just as bad as clear-cutting forests. Other fishing methods like purse seines and longlines kill everything in their tracks indiscriminately.

The decimation is real: a 2003 study found that 90% of the big fish in the ocean are gone, and what’s left is going fast. . Despite declining numbers, “management” organizations are raising catch limits rather than reducing them to allow stocks to recover. It’s like cutting the jugular when someone is bleeding out. It will only kill the oceans faster.

But there’s some hope–the FAO is considering a “ban” on government subsidies to illegal fishing–you read that right,  it’s illegal yet governments are paying boats to get out and pillage the seas. This move is, like saying “let’s stop paying drug cartels”, yet illegal fishing subsidies are a real problem, and a ban might reduce their negative effects. The World Trade Organization has also raised the issue of eliminating fishing subsidies at several recent meetings. So far, governments have not had the courage to commit to eliminating subsidies, but with political pressure, we can reduce these perverse incentives.

Fisheries are ripe for disruption. According to the World Bank, about 80-115 Billion dollars are lost each year to bad management of fisheries, or directly paid to boats poaching marine wildlife. Redirecting those resources to improving governance would be a game-changer.

The issue of the legality of the high seas

Few places remain on the planet that have no governing body to set laws and enforce them. Besides disputed pockets of land, international waters are that last lawless frontier. Even Antarctica’s landmass and ice shelves are governed by a treaty systems that established the whole continent as a scientific preserve in 1961. No such international agreements exist to police the high seas.

Even if there were, international waters are so expansive that enforcement is a huge challenge. Vast distances, large swells, and the physics of traveling through water make it impossible for governments to reach deep into the high seas and chase criminals. With the right governance model and innovative technology, however, we might finally be able to bring law and order into the ocean’s wild west. International waters represent 60% of the ocean and thus 40% of the surface of the planet. So the challenge is daunting! Yet there is a new treaty under negotiation in the U.N. to govern biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). If the treaty includes strong provisions,  new technologies like Global Fishing Watch can supplement it to revolutionize ocean governance, and improve conditions for people and animals at sea.

That just might help us stamp out the last remnants of slavery— in international waters, men who were drugged or debt-bonded are often chained, mistreated, and overworked with no chance of escape (where would they jump to out in the deep blue?). Human traffickers who bring them onto boats also kidnap women and girls  to shackle them into the sex trade. If the world gets serious about illegal fishing, we might save many people from the scourge of modern slavery. Improving ocean governance is the least we can do, for the people and creatures exploited at sea.


  • Buy sustainable seafood (look at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood Watch program and download their app – Seafood watchor check out WWF’s sustainable seafood directory, that is subdivided by country!
  • Push your government to sign the Port State Measures Agreement to prevent illegal catch from going through their ports.

Help protect the ocean rather than criminals who abuse people and pillage the Earth’s last lawless frontier.

Check out WWF’s Sustainable seafood guides, subdivided by country!

Article by: Sebastian Nicholls

Choices can be very powerful

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