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The importance of unified co-management of cross-boundary fisheries

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Fish are incorrigible disrespecters of invisible boundaries, national and otherwise. In Europe there are few if any marine fisheries with stocks that do not overlap or seasonally cross any national maritime boundaries. As a result, fisheries in the Baltic, North, Mediterranean and other seas are all best managed not by individual nations but by international bodies.

An example is the Baltic Sea cod fishery, for which the Baltic Sea Fisheries Commission (BSFC) was established by the 1973 Gdansk Convention on Fisheries and Conservation of the Living Resources of the Baltic Sea. For many years the BSFC monitored the administration by Baltic nations of the total allowable catch (TAC) of cod, among other things, set annually by the European Union Council. The BSFC ended when Council Regulation (EC) No. 1098/2007 of 18 September 2007 established a multiannual plan for the management of the cod stocks in the Baltic Sea. The provisions of the plan define the management targets, technical measures for limiting fishing effort, and specific provisions on control and enforcement

The overall Baltic cod TAC or quota set by the EU Council is allocated to each Baltic Member State, and the Member States are charged with the administration and enforcement of the TAC allocation in their respective waters. Each of the eight Baltic Member States has the responsibility for implementation of the single EU plan, and the EU monitors their performance.

In Sweden, for example, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management allocates Sweden’s share of the quota via vessel licenses, and makes the decision whether to close the fishery if it looks like the quota will be filled before the end of the year. In Sweden there is a system for exchanging quotas with another Member State, if available, should the national quota be filled, so that fishermen wouldn’t have to stop fishing. But that works only if another Member State has unused quota. Other Baltic nations have their own systems, each designed to support their industry while working in concert with the overall EU Council cod management efforts for the Baltic Sea.

Where would we be without international bodies such as fisheries commissions to oversee the joint international management of European marine fisheries? Well, we would be in relative chaos leading to depleted resources, thanks to the famous behavioural concept known as “the tragedy of the commons.” If each nation among a group of nations fishing a shared resource were to act on their own, each in their perceived best interest, each nation would harvest as much as they profitably could, in the (rational) belief that any fish left unharvested will be caught by someone else. Rather than reduce harvests to preserve the resource for future generations, unsure if “the other guy” is going to be equally altruistic, each nation has it in its immediate best interest to harvest “too much” (from a long-run view). The result is a depleted resource, yielding less fish — even though there are more harvesters than necessary — than it could yield if there were fewer harvesters.

Thus the “tragedy”: one nation, sharing a fish resource with another, has an incentive to boost its harvest, knowing that some fish from the other nation’s waters will swim over to replace at least some of the extra catch, and since both nations think this way, too much fish is caught. This “strategy,” while rational for each individual nation’s fishing industry, is irrational for the fishery as a whole.

The creation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), often called “200-mile limits,” under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, was intended to remedy the “tragedy of the commons” in marine fisheries by giving nations economic control over waters beyond their (typically 12-mile) territorial sea. Before then, the “high seas”, with no fishery management plan to speak of, began 12 miles from shore. However, in small seas such as the Baltic (or seas such as the North Sea with non-EU bordering states) and far-ranging species such as cod, boundaries overlap and this remedy is not always effective. Coordinated multinational management of cross-boundary fisheries is necessary to avoid a “tragedy.”

To understand what area each advisory council is managing, EMODnet HA team has mapped the zones in European waters in order to provide useful and simplified data for the users.

The information and views set out in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission. Neither the European Commission nor any person acting on the European Commission's behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information therein.

March 2nd, 2018 | Written by

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