I. History of Overfishing
During the last decade, animal law has grown into a much more significant field of law. There are attorneys who exclusively dedicate themselves to using the law to make better the lives of all varieties of animals, such as companion pets, farm animals, and wild animals. The law as it relates to fish though, including fish exploitation, has existed for over a century.
Fishing law has existed for so long because, contrary to widespread assumptions, overfishing is not a new phenomenon. A study released in 2001 revealed that overfishing reaches back thousands of years to aboriginal coastal populations, such as the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands, who decimated sea otter populations beginning 2,500 years ago. In 1376, King Edwards III of England instituted a ban on dragging weighted nets along the bottom of rivers, a process known as trawling. Holland banned trawling in 1583, and France soon followed, going so far as to make trawling a capital offense. Modern overfishing can be traced to the 1800s, when whales were hunted for their blubber. During this century, the international community started to develop agreements and treaties to provide a legal foundation for fishing law. In 1882, various nations of Northwestern Europe ratified a regional fishing agreement, though this was more about policing the conduct of the fishermen than about conservation. Many more international agreements have been established, particularly since the mid-1900s, and yet today we find our oceans are on the brink of an ecological catastrophe.
In a modern, industrialized world, these international agreements have failed to meet the challenges of a planet with seven billion people - 200 million of whom depend on fishing for their livelihood or food. One in five persons rely on fish as their primary source of protein. These statistics particularly hold true for much of the developing world. This makes approaching overfishing from a legal perspective a difficult proposition, because developing countries often lack the ability to not only create their own laws, but enforce them. Additionally, protecting fish stocks has yet to reach some of the most fervent animal activists. As author Paul Greenberg notes in his studies on fish populations, "[n]o one has yet motored a Greenpeace zodiac between a school of breaching bluefin tuna and the boat that would haul them in to market. Whales have become wildlife. But tuna have remained food."
To create a viable legal solution to this crisis, it is important to examine modern international fishing treaties to see where they have failed to protect fish stocks, and then compare them to some successes that the United States has had. Only then can a truly global solution be strategized.
II. International Fishing Agreements
One of the early modern international fishing agreements was the Convention for the Establishment of an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. Signed in 1949, it was one of the first conventions directed at protecting fish, rather than the fishermen. The convention originally applied to the United States and Costa Rica, though today, the European Union, France, China, Japan, Canada, and much of Central America are also members.
The convention's purpose is to facilitate the maintenance of yellowfin tuna and skipjack tuna populations at levels that will permit maximum sustained catches each year. The convention also makes investigations into the abundance, biology, and ecology of these tuna species. It accomplishes these goals with a commission that meets annually. This commission submits reports on its investigations each year to the contracting countries. Unfortunately, this commission falls far short at accomplishing its goal of protecting fish stocks. The reason, as will become apparent with many other similar treaties, is that there is no mechanism to enforce any recommendations. Article III of the convention calls on contracting parties to agree to enact any legislation that may be necessary to carry out the purposes of the convention, but there is nothing to legally bind the parties. Such a convention merely memorializes the hopes of those who wish to protect fish stocks. It does not actually do so.
Similarly, the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas fails to provide any enforcement mechanism. This particular convention, signed in Geneva in 1958, was one of four conventions considered at the first United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Written to address exploitation of living resources, the goal of the convention was to render the optimum sustainable yield to secure a maximum food supply. In contrast to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, this treaty, formed under UN auspices, focused more on the nations involved than on fish stocks. Article 2 itself notes that conservation programs should place a priority on supplying food for human consumption, not on protecting declining fish stocks. In fact, the word "resources" appears multiple times throughout the convention, suggesting the convention's purpose is to serve the needs of humans rather than fish.
William Bishop explains the fisherman-centered aspect to this treaty in his Columbia Law Review article, noting that the treaty attempts to specify how member nations may lawfully enact and apply conservation rules, and under what circumstance those rules can be applied to foreign vessels operating on the high seas. Hypothetically, should Australian laws on southern yellowtail fishing apply to Malaysian fishermen that catch yellowtail just outside of Australian jurisdiction in the Tasman Sea?
Inquiries such as this are addressed in the treaty's provisions that deal with interstate disputes. According to Article 6, Sec. 3, a state whose nationals are engaged in fishing in any area of the high seas adjacent to another state's territorial sea shall, at the request of that coastal state, enter into negotiations with that state regarding methods of conserving the fish sought. Under the hypothetical posited above, this provision suggests that Australia may request that Malaysian yellowtail fishermen negotiate with Australia about steps Malaysia must take to protect yellowtail stocks in the Tasman Sea. The treaty further states that if no steps can be agreed upon, and no peaceful settlement can be achieved under Article 33 of the U.N. Charter, then disputes under Article 6, Sec. 3 may be submitted to a special commission of five members. Unfortunately, this commission lacks any power to force member states to comply, and simply "follows its own procedure," which could conceivably be nothing. This makes it a weak, nonbinding international agreement that does little to preserve fish stocks.
An additional convention arose in 1964 that exclusively pertained to fishing in the Atlantic Ocean and its smaller neighboring seas. The European Fisheries Convention, signed in London, included powerful signatories such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Its provisions supposedly guaranteed coastal states exclusive jurisdiction over fishing within six miles of their coasts, and directed fishing vessels of contracting parties to not target fish stocks substantially different from those that have been habitually exploited. In theory, this would imply that Scotland, a major exporter of Atlantic salmon, would not commercially target a fish species that has not traditionally been part of its commercial catch. Again though, there is no mechanism to ensure that signatories comply, and the convention provides no method to sanction violators.
Unlike the aforementioned treaties, the agreement that, perhaps more than the others, is most applicable to modern international fishing law is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas ("ICCAT"). Despite being signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1966, the legal importance of ICCAT's goal – protecting stocks of Atlantic tunas and other similar species – is more profound today than at any time since its inception. Commercial fishermen have decimated stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna, and the species is on the verge of an ecological collapse. This is because, as Paul Greenberg notes, "… fishing [for tuna] has moved out of national territorial waters into what is known in nautical parlance as the ‘high seas'; these areas are owned by no one and fishable by everyone." New technology, such as deep-freeze holds on tuna boats, have enabled more tuna to be preserved for longer periods, thus incentivizing fishermen to catch more fish.
ICCAT is responsible for monitoring populations of tuna and tuna-like fishes throughout the Atlantic. Fish species falling under the commission's auspices include the traditional tuna species such as bluefin, yellowfin, albacore, and bigeye tunas, as well as billfish species that have also come under extraordinary fishing pressure, including swordfish, marlins, and spearfishes. The commission is structured such that each contracting party may be represented by up to three delegates, who then meet every two years. ICCAT has the authority to establish fish panels based on species, group species, or geographic areas. These panels may then propose recommendations for joint actions by the contracting states on issues such as recommended maximum sustainable catch allowances for various species of commercially valuable tunas.
Where fishing on the high seas is concerned, once again, ICCAT lacks enforcement. ICCAT's recommendations become "effective" for contracting parties six months after the commission hands down these recommendations, and signatories agree to take all necessary actions to ensure the enforcement of these recommendations. The commission's recommendations are especially important because the bluefin tuna has been exploited toward oblivion. Unfortunately, ICCAT's suggestions lack any further authority to legally set fishing limits on bluefin tuna and other species. ICCAT has instead relied on member states codifying the commission's recommendations into their own respective legal systems, though this seems to be of little value, considering that "[i]n 2007, every single member nation violated catch limits set by [ICCAT]." In fact, bluefin have became so rare in some locals that the United States was not even able to catch its own legally alloted bluefin quota from 2008 through 2010.
Finally, the preeminent international agreement that addresses overfishing is the most recent meeting of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas ("UNCLOS"). The third of such UNCLOS meetings, this particular convention concluded in 1982, and fully came into force in 1994. Despite the fact that UNCLOS has one hundred and fifty-eight signatories, the United States has refused to follow suit. In 2004, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose ranking member at the time was the current Vice-President of the United States, Joseph Biden, voted unanimously in favor of ratifying UNCLOS. Despite this showing of support, the Republican leader in the United States Senate, Bill Frist, refused to bring the convention to a floor vote.
For the states that have ratified it, UNCLOS grants coastal member nations up to 12 nautical miles within which to establish exclusive jurisdiction. UNCLOS allows for these coastal states to determine the allowable catch of fish in its exclusive economic zones, based on the state's own scientific information. However, any member states that exploit highly migratory species – defined as tunas, billfishes, mackerels, and bonitos – must then comply with any appropriate international organizations to ensure the conservation of those particular fish species.
Unlike some of the aforementioned agreements that clearly lacked any official enforcement mechanism, UNCLOS created the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas, located in Hamburg, Germany. The tribunal is composed of twenty-one independent members, elected from "… persons enjoying the highest reputation for fairness and integrity in the field of the law of the sea." These members have jurisdiction over any dispute concerning the convention. Disputes that arise between members states over issues such as fishing limits are settled in any of four different forums: the Tribunal itself, the International Court of Justice, or either of two arbitral tribunals. The parties to the dispute have the option of choosing their preferred tribunal.
A significant problem arises, though, when these tribunals administer judgments. According to UNCLOS, the decisions of these tribunals shall be complied with by all parties. But what happens if one of the parties fails to comply? Hypothetically, if Canada has a dispute with Japan regarding Japanese exploitation of Pacific salmon, and a tribunal renders a decision favorable to Canada, are Japanese courts simply expected to enforce the tribunal's decision? The obvious answer is no. There is simply no way to outsource a tribunal's decision to a member state, such that the member state will be forced to comply with the decision. Thus, while UNCLOS provides a formal process for adjudicating fishing disputes between member states, it lacks the power to truly enforce its own judgments.
These international agreements make clear that using international legal systems to protect declining fish stocks is an exceedingly difficult proposition. Individual nations though, such as the United States, have had a more significant, yet still limited, record of success of not only codifying laws and adjudicating disputes, but also providing for enforcement so that those laws and decisions actually do help fish stocks.
III. The United States' Statutory Approach to Overfishing
The United States has a complex statutory approach to dealing with overfishing. This approach provides a complicated, yet adequate, system to manage overfishing.
United States statutory law is based upon the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. The law established a 200-mile fishery conservation zone, and created Regional Fishery Management Councils comprised of federal and state officials. The law also established exclusive United States management authority over three categories of fish: all fish within the its exclusive economic zone, all fish on the continental shelf, and all anadromous fish throughout their migratory range, except when in a foreign state's waters.
Anadromous fish provide a stark example of the Magnuson Act's jurisdictional reach. Such fish are born in freshwater, migrate to saltwater, and return to freshwater to spawn. One better-known example of such a fish that the Act would govern under this provision is the Pacific salmon, a family of five unique species found along the Pacific coast. The Magnuson Act's jurisdiction thus gives the United States management authority over Pacific salmon while they spawn in United States rivers and when they migrate through the high seas. However, when these salmon unknowingly cross into Japanese or Russian waters during their migration, the management of these fish is no longer governed by United States law, at least until the fish leave those foreign waters.
By 1996, the Magnuson Act needed to be modernized to reflect an increased strain on fish stocks. Sponsored by the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and signed into law by President Clinton, the Act's name changed to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and it's updated provisions became known as the Sustainable Fisheries Act ("the Act"). Significantly, the Act declared that commercial and recreational fishing, which contributes significantly to United States employment, had been badly damaged due to overfishing, noting that fishery resources are both finite and renewable. The law responded to these conclusions by setting out important definitions that United States management authorities could use to implement sustainability measures. "Fish" were defined as finfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and other marine animal and plant life, excluding marine mammals and birds. Additionally, "optimum" was defined as the amount of fish that provides the greatest overall benefit to the nation on the basis of maximum sustainable yield and provides for the rebuilding of overfished fisheries. Finally, "overfishing" was defined as a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis. Such definitions were an important development, because clearly defining what is and is not covered under the Act both guides management authorities and prevents fishermen from abusing possible loopholes regarding what they can and cannot do under federal law.
The Act is implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS"), a subdivision of both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ("NOAA") and the United States Commerce Department ("the Department"). NMFS currently governs eight specified Regional Fishery Management Councils, and it outsources authority over most fish species to these councils. The councils then prepare, and submit to the Secretary of Commerce, fishery management plans for each fishery within the United States' geographic area of authority that requires conservation and management. An important caveat to this, however, is that the Secretary of Commerce retains authority over highly migratory fish species, defined as tuna, billfishes, and sharks. After these eight councils deliver their reports, the Secretary annually reports to Congress on the status of fisheries within each council's respective geographic district. The councils must then respond to any unfavorable findings by taking steps to end regional overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks.
Unlike international treaties, violators of the updated Act face the possibility of severe sanctions. Persons found to have violated the provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act are subject to civil penalties of up to $100,000 per violation. Additionally, persons who commit specified offenses under the Act are punishable by criminal fines of up to $100,000, imprisonment for up to six months, or both. Such punishments provide an obvious incentive for fishermen to cooperate with the Act.
Enforcement of the Act has produced some encouraging results. From 1997-2002, overfishing has been corrected twenty-six times, and depleted stocks have rebuilt their biomass thresholds twenty times. Atlantic species that have seen such rebounds include winter flounder, king mackerel, gag grouper, redfish. Additionally, another Atlantic fishery that was too late to be included in 1997-2002 survey, yet saw significant improvement in its stocks, was swordfish. Swordfish saw an improved fishery because NOAA regulated the species through limited entry into fishing waters, seasonal area closures to protect undersized fish, minimum size restrictions, and strict quotas. On the Pacific coast, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported in the survey that groundfish had a dramatic biomass increase, which was especially encouraging considering there are at least eighty-two distinct species of groundfish that require monitoring. Still, as of 2003, sixty-six stocks in United States waters have experienced overfishing, and eighty-six have been outright overfished. NMFS has, thus far, successfully placed seventy of these overfished species under rebuilding programs.
A second federal statute that addresses overfishing is the United States' 1998 ratification of ICCAT. Known as the Atlantic Tuna Convention Act ("ATCA"), it vests its authority with the Secretary of State, not the Secretary of Commerce. This is probably in part due to the fact that ICCAT is an international agreement that requires the diplomatic expertise of the State Department, not simply the economic expertise of the Commerce Department. However, the law does give the Commerce Department the power to implement recommendations of the international treaty, so long as the State Department approves of those recommendations.
The statute states that it is unlawful for any person in charge of a fishing vessel, or for any fishing vessel subject to United States jurisdiction, to violate any regulation adopted by the Commerce Department and recommended by the international treaty. It is also unlawful for any person subject to United States jurisdiction to ship, transport, purchase, sell, import, export, or have custody of any tuna or other fish, delineated under the statute, that the person knows or should have known was taken contrary to the recommendations of the international treaty. Violations of the statute subject individuals to significant punishments. All fish that are taken or retained in violation of the statute, or the monetary value of such fish, may be forfeited to authorities.
Additionally, ATCA provides an enforcement mechnism. Under the statute, any person authorized to enforce the provisions may, with or without warrant, board any vessel subject to United States jurisdiction and inspect the vessel and the fish it has caught. If it is determined that the vessel and its fishermen have taken tunas and other applicable species in violation of the statute, then the fishermen may be arrested, with or without warrant. The fish may then be disposed of pursuant to a court order or in a manner prescribed by the Secretary of Commerce. The power to board such ships, arrest the fishermen, and dispose of their catch is an enormous step toward combating overfishing. Such penalties give fishermen a strong incentive to follow fishing regulations.
Regulations such as the Sustainable Fisheries Act and the United States' codification of ICCAT clearly contain enforcement mechanisms that directly benefit threatened fish species such as bluefin tuna and yellowfin tuna. Similarly, recent United States case law has laid down important precedents that protect such fish stocks.
IV. United States Case Law
Because such a significant share of fisheries management occurs through the Commerce Department, many fishing disputes end up hauling the Secretary of Commerce into federal court to defend the department's actions.
In 1998, the Massachusetts Audobon Society ("the Society") sought declaratory and injunctive relief against President Clinton's Secretary of Commerce, Bill Daley, for mismanagement of the Atlantic bluefin tuna under ATCA. The most pertinent counts of the claim that related to overfishing was the Society's allegation that Secretary Daley's regulations inadequately protected smaller tunas, and that the Commerce Department ("the Department") violated ATCA's emphasis on protecting juvenile fish. The regulations in question were ICCAT's 1974 recommendation that member nations not take bluefin tuna less than 14 pounds and the 1992 recommendation that any excess fish over an annual quota be subtracted from the quota the following year. Both parties moved for summary judgment.
What sparked the Society's lawsuit was overfishing that occurred during the 1996 tuna-fishing season. The Department had allowed an overharvest of tuna during the 1996 season, and never adjusted for the 1997 season by subtracting the amount overfished. The Department argued that the Society's claim was moot, because the suit was filed in 1998, and the regulations only allowed for an adjustment, due to an overharvest, for consecutive years. The District Court, however, ruled that one of two classic constitutional exceptions to mootness applied – the Department's actions were capable of repetition yet evading review. The Society had a reasonable expectation that it would be subject to the same injury of overfishing again (capable of repetition), and that it would not be able to adjudicate a similar proceeding within one fishing year (evading review). Because the Society satisfied this mootness exception, the court granted summary judgment in favor the Society on the count that the Department's action in allowing an overharvest of tuna was unlawful.
This case laid down an important precedent – that the Commerce Department has an obligation to strictly follow federal regulations designed to reduce overfishing. A few years later, the Department found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit for doing just that.
On July 13, 2000, NMFS issued emergency regulations, in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, that closed areas of the Atlantic beyond the United States' exclusive economic zone to United States long-lining for swordfish, tuna, and shark. The Blue Water Fishermen's Association ("Blue Water") filed suit against the Department, seeking a preliminary injunction and to have enforcement of this emergency regulation precluded. Blue Water alleged that NMFS, under the guidance of President Bush's Secretary of Commerce, Don Evans, could not extend the Magnuson-Stevens Act beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The District Court ruled that both ATCA and ICCAT provided exceptions that permit extraterritorial extension of NMFS authority beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The court noted that these exceptions were important to advance United States efforts to comply with unenforceable international treaties such as ICCAT.
Cases such as these obviously do not provide a solid foundation of legal precedent for such a global problem. They do, however, suggest that United States courts may have found a method for ensuring that their regulatory agencies protect fish stocks: keeping those agencies on a tight leash when it comes to adhering to the law, yet giving the leash some slack when those agencies take emergency steps that protect fish.
V. An International Solution
The facts on the ground – or rather in the water – make clear that international fishing law is inadequate because it lacks any real enforcement. International agreements need better enforcement mechanisms, something that is much easier for a country to impose on its own citizens than for an international agreement to impose on citizens from multiple nationalities. United States law, both statutory law and case law, have proved to be national successes, but we outsource too much of the responsibilities to so many bureaucratic organizations that our methods cannot provide a workable solution on the international stage. Accordingly, there must be a complete revamping of international fishing law, and the result must have an enforcement mechanism that sanctions violators.
Thus, there should be one primary international fishing convention that applies to fishing on the high seas. The convention must have a treaty drafted not by lawyers, but by the top scientists from the contracting states. These scientists must organize individual commissions to focus on threatened fisheries, such as tuna, cod, and salmon, and they should be responsible for setting quota limits. Regarding enforcement, commercial fishermen from contracting states should be required to register with the convention to obtain fishing licenses and privileges. These fishermen must then report their catches back to their respective commission. Any fisherman who violates quotas shall face severe sanctions. The convention must have an international tribunal to adjudicate fishing violations, and fishermen who do violate quota limits must have their fishing licenses revoked.
Such a convention will obviously invite ridicule, considering that the high seas have historically fallen under no jurisdictional limitations. But there are steps that can be taken that would encourage states to ratify such a treaty. First, states must know that the treaty would only apply to fishing on the high seas, not in their coastal jurisdictions or exclusive economic zones. Additionally, member states can exert significant pressure on nonmembers by boycotting fish from countries that fail to ratify. Finally, member states can boycott buying or selling fish from countries that do ratify the treat but continue to violate it.
This solution will obviously be controversial. But much of the law of the sea is based on customary international law. With the passage of time, contracting states will likely have no qualms about adhering to such a treaty. In the end though, saving collapsing fish stocks with such a treaty may just come down to pure economics. One bluefin tuna caught in the waters off Massachusetts can be bought for as much as $400,000 in Tokyo. Considering Japan's apparent addiction to tuna, how many bluefin can the United States refuse to sell to the Japanese before they begin to control their own destructive fishing practices? I would venture to guess not many.
 Trawling – Centuries Old Opposition, Greenpeace (Nov. 24, 2011, 1:40 PM), http://www.greenpeace.org/international/seafood/understanding-the-problem/overfishing-history/trawling-centuries-old-opposition.
 A Brief History of Overfishing, Greenpeace (Nov. 24, 2011, 1:48 PM), http://www.greenpeace.org/international/seafood/understanding-the-problem/overfishing-history
 William W. Bishop, Jr., The 1958 Geneva Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas, 62 Colum. L. Rev. 1206, 1209 (1962).
 Overfishing – A Threat to Marine Biodiversity, United Nations (Nov. 20, 2011, 9:55 AM), http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=800.
 Paul Greenberg, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food 226 (2010).
 Convention for the Establishment of an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, U.S.-Costa Rica, May 31, 1949.
 Id. at Preamble.
 Id. at Article 1, §2.
 Id. at Article III.
 Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas, Apr. 29, 1958.
 Id. at Article 2.
 Bishop at 1209.
 Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas, Apr. 29, 1958.
 Id. at Article 6, §3.
 European Fisheries Convention, Mar. 9, 1964.
 Id. at Article 4.
 Total Allowable Catch and ICES, The Scottish Government, http://scotland.gov.uk/Topics/marine/marine-environment/species/fish/TAC.
 International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, May 14, 1966.
 Greenberg at 201.
 Id. at 202.
 ICCAT at Article 4, §1.
 Id at Article VI.
 Id. at Article IX.
 Greenberg at 217.
 Id. at 223.
 Introduction, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, 1973-1982.
Id. at Article 61.
 Appendix 1, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, 1973-1982.
 International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, http://www.itlos.org/index.php?id=15&L=0.
 Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, 16 U.S.C. § §1801-1882 (1976).
 Id. at § §1811-1812.
 National Marine Fisheries Service, http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/fish/.
 Sustainable Fisheries Act, 16 U.S.C. § §1801-1882 (1996).
 Implementing the Sustainable Fisheries Act, June 2003.
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 5.
 Id. at 4.
 Id. at 5.
 Atlantic Tunas Convention Act, 16. USC, §971 (1998).
 Id. at §971c.
 Id. at §971e.
 Id. at §971f.
 Massachusetts Audobon Society, Inc. v. Daley. 31 F.Supp.2d 189 (1998).
 Id. at 193
 Id. at 193.
 Id. at 196.
 Id. at 196.
 Id. at 198.
 Blue Water Fisherman's Association v. National Marine Fisheries Service and Donald L. Evans. 158 F.Supp. 2d 118 (2001).
 Id. at 119.
 Id. at 122.