Cover Image
close this bookCERES No. 070 - July - August 1979 (FAO Ceres, 1979, 50 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
Open this folder and view contentsCERESCOPE
View the documentNeeded:
View the documentThe new ocean regime : Winners and losers
View the documentFunding better fisheries
View the documentManaging our own
View the documentThe island that discovered the sea
View the documentA place to begin
View the documentPosed on a knife - Edge
View the documentBooks
View the documentReaction

The new ocean regime : Winners and losers

The rearrangement of benefits is not entirely a matter of transfer from the rich to the poor

by John Gulland

The tradition of freedom of the seas that existed from at least the seventeenth century until nearly the present day had two main bases: first, the fact that ocean resources were, in relation to current technology, effectively unlimited; secondly, the dominance of the maritime powers, particularly Holland and England, with an interest in free trade and easy access to world markets.

Both these conditions have changed drastically in recent years. The collapse of the stocks of whales and of other important species, such as the North Sea herring and Peruvian anchoveta, has shown that the seas' living resources, though large, are not unlimited. These developments and the more common cases of lack of control over inputs into fisheries, such as capital investment, have led to economic difficulties and demonstrated the need for proper management of fisheries if the living marine resources are to reach the full potential of their economic and social benefits. At the same time many developing countries, in the general spirit of the new international economic order, want greater control over their resources, including those off their coasts.

A new age

The resulting pressures to extend the limits of jurisdiction of coastal states over fisheries were among the factors leading to the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. Though this Conference has not yet concluded, the results in regard to fisheries are reasonably clear. In addition to a territorial sea out to 12 miles, there will be an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) out to 200 miles from the baselines, in which the coastal state will have the dominant authority and responsibility over fisheries. Most coastal states have introduced national legislation extending jurisdiction over fisheries along these lines. According to the draft texts before the Law of the Sea Conference, the coastal state will have the authority to set regulations in these areas particularly in respect of the size of the allowable catch. Where a coastal state does not fully utilize the resource, it is expected to grant access to other countries to catch the "surplus" fish under conditions set by the coastal state.

With this new legal regime, world fisheries are entering a new age, much different from the free-for-all typical of earlier years. It remains to be seen to what extent these new conditions will in fact achieve the results hoped for, in terms of better management of the resources in general, and, in particular, greater benefits to developing countries.

The extent of the new exclusive economic zones will depend on how exactly the new baselines and boundaries are drawn, but on a globe they will leave a lot of blue sea outside the limits. This misrepresents the effects on fisheries. Less than 1 percent of current catches are taken in areas outside the new EEZs, and the fish stocks concerned, mostly tuna, are also harvested inside the limits. Thus, the coastal states will have a considerable say on how even these stocks are harvested.

A line on a map also overestimates the impact of 200-mile EEZs in another sense. Fish are far from evenly spread, and fishermen can only work where fish are common and catch rates high. Fish are commonest in shallower water, over the continental shelves. In many areas, for example off East Africa, these shelves are narrow, much less than 200 miles. Most fish stocks that are readily and economically harvestable lie close to the coast, often not much further than the old limits of 3 or 12 miles. Extending limits out to 200 miles will therefore not bring anything like the 70-fold or 16-fold increase in available resources that might be guessed from applying simple arithmetic to the different limits.

A notable mismatch

Moreover, fish stocks are not distributed evenly along the coasts. Only in certain areas is there the regular supply of nutrients and the high flow through the food chain from plants and zooplankton to commercial-sized fish that can support large-scale industrial fishing. Two outstanding types of situation where big fisheries can develop are the wide continental shelves, which mainly occur in the waters of the North Atlantic, including such classic international fishing grounds as the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and the upwelling areas off the subtropical western coasts of the major continents. These latter areas, notably off Peru and northwest and southwest Africa, arise from the same system of currents and winds that give rise to major deserts on land. For West Africa in particular there is a notable mismatch between countries with low populations, but rich fish stocks (e.g., Mauritania, Namibia), and the countries of the Gulf of Guinea with large fish-eating populations, but relatively poor resources off their coasts.

With the advance of technology in the last few decades, especially the development of long-range factory trawlers capable of freezing or processing their catches at sea, these major fishing grounds attracted large fleets of non-local vessels. An accompanying chart (Table 1) shows that while there is some non-local fishing in most parts of the world (mostly tuna in tropical zones), more than 90 percent of nonlocal fishing is done in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and off West Africa (eastern central and southeast Atlantic). It is these fisheries that will be immediately affected by the new regime, since their operations can only continue under agreement with the coastal state. Equally, it is only these coastal states that stand to gain clear and immediate benefits from the new regime. Where there has been no foreign fishing, the economic, technological and social problems of developing a fishery are changed little by the new regime location


Nationality of vessel

Off developed

Off developing



10 716

4 572

15 288






11 146

5 213

16 359

Catches (thousand tons) of fishing vessels operating off foreign countries.

It is therefore worth reexamining the data in Table 1, arranging the catches to show, as in Table 2, the extent to which they were taken by developing or by developed countries, and to which they were taken off the coasts of developing or developed countries.

As might be expected, most non local fishery is done by developed countries, notably Japan and the USSR, but several developing countries also depend, to a greater or lesser extent, on catches taken off foreign coasts. These include Thailand, the Republic of Korea, Ghana and Cuba. About two thirds of non-local fishing was done off developed countries, notably Canada and the US, but there was also considerable fishing by Japan off the USSR and vice-versa. The main developing countries that stand to benefit are, as already mentioned, those of West Africa, from Morocco to Sierra Leone in the north, and Angola and Namibia in the south.

Those coastal states most immediately concerned have an obvious opportunity to take control of their coastal fisheries to ensure that they receive greater benefits from these resources. In the long term, however the most significant challenge comes from the fact that clear jurisdiction, either by a single state, or two or three adjacent states in the case of shared stocks migrating along their coasts, gives a greatly increased opportunity for the world fisheries to be better managed.

In a productive state

The spectacular collapses of such huge fisheries as the Peruvian anchoveta and the North Sea herring illustrate what can happen when resources are not well managed. These collapses have tended to focus attention on the biological aspects of fishery management, and the need for measures to maintain the resources in a productive state. But essential as this is, failure to consider the other aspects, such as economic or social objectives, has too often meant that fisheries fail to produce the general benefits that they could do with more rational management.

Nearly all fisheries reach a stage, often after the opening up of new markets or the discovery of new fishing grounds, of great success, with fishermen enjoying high incomes. This seldom lasts; inevitably, under conditions of free access, success attracts new entrants and additional capital. Frequently, through good fortune, or successful management for biological objectives, the biological productivity of the resource is maintained, but without control of inputs the economic performance is rarely maintained. Instead there can be grotesque imbalance between what is appropriate for the fishery and what actually occurs. For example, at one time the processing capacity of the Peruvian fish-meal industry was large enough to turn the whole world fish catch into fish meal! Indeed, the measures taken to conserve the stock often took the form of imposing some kind of economic inefficiency on it: the prohibition of the more efficient types of gear or closing the fishery for shorter or longer periods.

For anyone except the fish

The new regime of the sea will not immediately solve these problems. Indeed, many of the most obvious examples of failure to manage fisheries or to manage them for the benefit of anyone except the fish come from fisheries carried out by a single country. But it will bring a new atmosphere and attitude in which the problems of managing fisheries, as distinct from fish stocks, can be tackled.

Fisheries can bring various benefits to a country, in terms of the supply of high-quality food, foreign exchange earnings, employment, or raising the standard of living of local communities. However, not all these objectives can be pursued simultaneously. Since resources are finite, it is not possible to maximize employment in fishing and also ensure high earnings for fishermen. One of the earliest decisions in planning to make the best uses of fish resources is the determination of the long-term objectives: whether it is to add to the total food supply at all costs, or to increase the economic efficiency of the industry or to improve the welfare of fishing communities, which, in many countries, are among the worst off.

Determining the appropriate objectives is particularly important for those developing countries that are gaining control over resources currently harvested on a large scale by foreign vessels. For some of these, the current catches are enormous by any likely standards of national capacity to catch, let alone consume. For example, present catches off Namibia are equivalent to over 5 kg per day for everyone in Namibia. Only a very small part of the present 2 million-ton catches are used for local consumption. A significant part of the total catch, in terms of weight, is accounted for by the pilchard fishery for canning and fish meal based in Walvis Bay. This provides a fair amount of local employment, though the profits are mainly returned to parent companies outside the country, particularly in South Africa. However, the major part of the catches, in terms of value, comes from the fishery by large long-distance trawlers, mostly for hake. These trawlers, from a variety of countries, with the USSR, Spain, Japan, Poland and Cuba each taking appreciable shares, rarely, if ever, use Namibian ports and at present contribute nothing to the Namibian economy.

When Namibia gains its independence, and jurisdiction over these resources, it will certainly not be able to assume direct operation of all this fishery. There is a range of choices between, on the one hand, enjoying simply the financial benefits of charging licence fees to the existing fleet and, on the other, of taking a more active part in the catching or processing side. Whatever the choice, careful study will be needed to determine the best strategy to attain these objectives. There are, for example, several ways of controlling the level of exploitation of a natural resource. One way is to control the total harvest, say in terms of a catch quota. This may be the correct general strategy, but it can lead to disaster if the wrong quota is chosen. In the 1950s the whale stocks in the Antarctic were controlled by a catch quota, but, mainly because the whaling countries had not supported adequate research of the right kind to provide timely and reliable scientific advice, the quotas were too high. As a result, the Antarctic whale stock collapsed and the Antarctic whaling industry virtually disappeared.

If developing countries are to take advantage of their opportunities and fulfil their responsibilities for the rational utilization and management of the fishery resources off their coasts, they will face enormous problems. The first group of these relate to information and advice. Few developing countries command enough expertise in the various disciplines of resource assessment, general ecology economics and sociology to be able to determine how big and of what kind the fish stocks are off their coasts, and how many, of what species, and of what size should be taken the better to achieve specified national objectives.

The second group is institutional and legal; often the laws relating to fisheries are inappropriate, or the administrative and enforcement machinery is inadequate to enforce the regulations. The simple process of checking (by patrol vessels or aircraft) whether there are any foreign vessels fishing in a 200-mile-wide zone can be considerable. An important and easily forgotten institutional aspect is to ensure that the fishermen themselves understand the reasons for regulations. Rules that fishermen feel are unnecessary or unfair are virtually impossible to enforce.

Finally there are problems of capital and investment. If coastal states with appreciable fishing off their coasts wish to replace this by locally based vessels, or if countries have available off their coasts some of the not inconsiderable number of resources that can still produce increased catches and wish to utilize them more fully, these countries will need capital for the vessels, probably including foreign exchange for at least the engines and equipment, as well as for shore installations.

In all these matters countries will need help of one kind or another, much of which FAO is in a good position either to provide directly or to stimulate the provision of such assistance in other ways. For this reason, the Director-General, in response to a request made by FAO's Committee on Fisheries at its eleventh session, and endorsed by the FAO Conference in November 1977, has proposed a special programme of assistance for development and management of the resources of the exclusive economic zones on the agenda of the Conference of FAO in November 1979.

An international business

One mechanism for the provision of assistance that is particularly effective in the case of fisheries is international collaboration at the regional or subregional level. Fish are no respecters of man-made boundaries, work on fish, whether in the matter of catching or selling a product, or in carrying out research, has always tended to be an international business. While the extension of jurisdiction is bringing an end to the era when ships from half a dozen countries might be working on the same fishing ground, international collaboration is still called for, especially where, because of its distribution and migrations, the same stock of fish is exploited by more than one country.

On the scientific side especially, the situation in, say, the South China Sea or in West Africa at the present time is strongly reminiscent of the situation around the North Sea in the early decades of this century. A small number of fishery scientists, only a handful in each country, are attempting to study the effects on fish stocks of a rapidly increasing fleet of fishing vessels, and to determine what management measures are needed. These scientists have, however, three significant advantages over their North Sea predecessors: they have a body of established scientific knowledge that can be applied, albeit with some modifications, to their problems, without the necessary methodology having to be built up from scratch; there are opportunities for assistance from outside; and, with the establishment of EEZs, there is the promise that the results can be used in positive action, rather than being the subject of interminable international negotiations.

In the North Sea, the need for international collaboration was met by the establishment in 1906 of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which now deals with nearly all aspects of marine research in the Atlantic north and east of a line from North Africa to Greenland. Similarly, a network of regional fisheries bodies has been established, mostly as subsidiary bodies of FAO, to provide a framework for regional collaboration in most parts of the world from the Caribbean to the Indo-Pacific region. In most cases, a mechanism for giving outside assistance to these regional activities has been provided by matching regional or interregional projects. These receive their primary funding from UNDP, but a number of national aid agencies also channel support through these projects.

With the establishment of EEZs world fisheries have entered a new era. The impetus came from two somewhat independent areas of dissatisfaction: the current ability to manage fisheries, and the way in which benefits from fisheries were shared among countries. It remains to be seen to what extent these problems will be removed by the new regime. Opportunities for better management are unquestionably greater. Countries now have the legal powers, and responsibility, to manage their fisheries, but to execute these powers successfully will not be easy. It will require political determination, and expertise in a range of subjects, particularly the various scientific disciplines concerned with the evaluation of fish resources. Since few countries command this expertise, most will require help if fisheries are to be properly managed.

A matter of geography

The situation regarding the redistribution of benefits is clearer, though perhaps less satisfactory. Undoubtedly a major rearrangement of benefits is taking place, but this is not entirely a matter of transfer from the rich to the poor. The matter is essentially one of geography, not only the geometry of where dividing lines between EEZs fall, but more especially of whether the area within each set of lines is, or is not, productive of fish. At one extreme there are some rich countries, e.g., the United States, which will gain control over large fishery resources; at the other, many poor countries (including the land-locked countries) which will receive no benefit; in between come some large developed countries such as Australia, which will gain control over extensive areas of sea, but few resources in relation to the size of these areas; and others, e.g., Japan, which will lose free access to many grounds. Equally, there are some developing countries (Mauritania, Namibia) which will gain control over very rich fish resources, particularly in relation to their other natural resources.

Most developing countries, though, will not be much affected in the short run; the degree to which they receive long-term benefits depends on their success (and the degree to which they are helped to achieve success) in implementing appropriate policies to develop and manage the resources off their coasts.