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Bold solutions for high seas marine conservation

Two-thirds of high seas fisheries are depleted or overfished, with impacts of climate change and marine pollution compounding the problem. Technology and political will can reverse the downward trend and move toward sustainability.

February 10, 2015
Credit: John B. Weller

SAN JOSE, CA – Fish and other marine species swim freely throughout the world’s oceans with no regard for national or international borders, and conservation projects aimed at protecting them should be equally fluid, Stanford scientists say.

A symposium this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will address new ideas for marine conservation on the high seas, or waters that fall outside of national jurisdictions. Dynamic marine protected areas, or MPAs, which move in time and space to protect migratory species living in the high seas, is one promising solution.

“We have sophisticated tracking data for these migratory species that show us where they are during their most vulnerable life-cycle phases,” said Larry Crowder, Science Director for Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions. “Why wouldn’t we work to employ equally sophisticated management?”

Crowder, who is also the Ed Ricketts Provostial Professor of Biology at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, will talk about how they are helping develop and integrate tools for implementing dynamic MPAs.

Stanford PhD candidate Cassandra Brooks will discuss the success of MPAs in Antarctica and how the frozen continent could serve as a model for high seas conservation in other parts of the world.

Brooks has studies how the 25 nation-state Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) manages the icy waters around the continent. Considered a leader in high seas conservation, CCAMLR announced the world’s first high seas MPA that is fully closed to fishing in 2009 and has since been negotiating plans for a Southern Ocean-wide network of marine reserves that would be the largest in the world.

“We have much to learn from looking south,” Brooks said. “The Antarctic has a rich history of scientific collaboration, international diplomacy and grand-scale conservation efforts. But it ultimately comes down to political will.”

With high seas fisheries on the decline and climate change and marine pollution compounding these pressures, some advocate closing the entire high seas to fishing. While sounding like an outrageously bold idea, researchers in the Stanford-led symposium will explain the rationality behind such a solution.

The high seas are a global commons, yet only a few countries benefit from them. “Ten countries get 70 percent of the profit from the catches. So while it’s a global commons, not everyone has access to it. Certain countries dominate it,” Brooks said.

Moreover, most fish species caught in the high seas are actually straddling stocks, which migrate in and out of national exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Closing the high seas to fishing could actually lead to increased catch and a more equitable distribution through the net straddling of fish from the high seas to maritime countries’ EEZs.

“Innovative approaches to managing resources in the open seas require interdisciplinary thinking, intensive engagement with managers and decision-makers, and bold vision,” Crowder said.

The symposium, entitled “Can our ocean commons be sustainably managed? Innovative strategies for the high seas”, will take place on Friday, February 13 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the San Jose Convention Center.