Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

International Marine Fisheries

Prepared by Eugene H. Buck

Senior Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

Fish stocks migrate across jurisdictions and do not recognize international borders. Nations approach fisheries conservation and management differently. Development and conservation objectives of nations harvesting common fish stocks often clash, and overcapitalized fleets are overharvesting the available resource in many areas. Issues include the appropriate U.S. policies to balance marine fisheries conservation and harvest allocation, and possible measures to stabilize declining stocks and to address overcapitalization of fishing fleets and overfishing.

Background and Analysis 11

The United States has priority international fisheries concerns in at least three areas --

  1. groundfish (e.g., pollock and cod) harvesting in international waters (e.g., the isolated "donut hole" in the Bering Sea surrounded by waters under the jurisdiction of Alaska and Russia; the continental shelf beyond Canadian jurisdiction in the Northwest Atlantic);
  2. management of highly migratory species (e.g., bluefin tuna and swordfish) in the Atlantic Ocean; and
  3. Pacific salmon management with Canada in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Concerns relate to the rights and responsibilities of coastal nations in managing fish stocks that range across jurisdictional boundaries (referred to as interjurisdictional or straddling stocks), as well as the need for international negotiations in some regions to balance the burden of stock conservation among interests.

For example, in the western Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and others believe bluefin tuna are overharvested. Western Atlantic bluefin may exceed 1,000 pounds and command top price in the export market to Japan. An aggressive commercial (both foreign and domestic) and sport fishery for this species along the U.S. Atlantic coast has depressed populations, as indicated by declining catch-per-unit-effort in harvesting and by declining average size of tuna landed. Nations, including the United States, who are members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) adhere to quotas limiting sport and commercial harvest, although some critics believe that dramatic reductions in harvest rates are required for population recovery. In some years, non-ICCAT-member nations harvest significant quantities of tuna outside treaty guidelines while some ICCAT-member nations harvest heavily in the eastern Atlantic, placing additional pressure on depleted stocks. However, some domestic and foreign harvesters believe that bluefin tuna stocks, although possibly depressed, are not stressed to the extent that they warrant additional restrictions on their harvest.

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon management has been controversial for both the United States and Canada, despite a 1985 bilateral Pacific Salmon Treaty. These nations have different approaches to valuing salmon and thus allocation of limited harvests engenders controversy over the best means to meet conservation goals. Meanwhile, the United States is proposing to list additional populations of Pacific salmon as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

International concern has also arisen over the appropriate management for species whose populations have been stressed with overharvesting. In May 1996, participants at an International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) workshop recommended adding 131 species of fish (e.g., 26 species of sturgeon, great white shark, seahorses, Nassau grouper, southern bluefin tuna) to the IUCN's 1996 Red List of Threatened Animals. Other groups joined in specific pleas for more restrictive management of sharks and seahorses to reverse population declines.

U.S. policy has been to negotiate bilateral or multilateral regional agreements to deal with specific concerns. Short of such an agreement, U.S. fisheries managers have sought discussions with foreign counterparts to raise concerns on interjurisdictional stock management. Where agreements exist, U.S. policy has been to negotiate for stronger conservation standards (e.g., protection for Atlantic bluefin tuna and other highly migratory species through ICCAT), while seeking to reserve some quota allocation for U.S. harvesters.

At the Earth Summit in Rio do Janeiro in June 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) identified international fisheries management as a priority concern. An intergovernmental conference on management of straddling (i.e., stocks ranging between national and international waters) and highly migratory stocks convened in July 1993 in New York City, and after six intensive negotiating sessions concluded an Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. This agreement establishes principles for complementary international fishery management within EEZs and in international waters. Including the United States, 26 nations signed the Agreement on December 4, 1995, the first day it was opened for signature. However, several major fishing nations have not signed this Agreement. In a parallel effort, a "Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing" was adopted by the 28th session of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Conference on October 25, 1995. This Code establishes voluntary guidelines and international standards of behavior for responsible fishing practices intended to ensure conservation of aquatic resources.

On November 24, 1993, the United Nations FAO Conference adopted by consensus an Agreement to Promote Compliance With International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas. This agreement established principles for controlling the practice of reflagging vessels for fishing in international waters. In addition to flag states' compliance with fishing vessel registration duties, the Agreement dictates that party states maintain records of their fishing vessels operating in international waters and report pertinent information regarding the activities of their registered vessels to FAO.

Several bilateral and multilateral fisheries agreements involving the United States are being, or have recently been, renegotiated. A 10-year extension of the Treaty on Fisheries Between the Governments of Certain Pacific Island States and the Government of the United States of America (for tuna) was concluded in mid-1992 with an effective date of June 15, 1993. Renegotiation of the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty is problematic, but is considered essential by both nations. The question is whether current international efforts are sufficient to address the management challenges posed by the stressed resources.

Status of the Issue

Congress enacted the High Seas Driftnet Fisheries Enforcement Act (P.L. 102-582) with a provision requiring an embargo of fisheries imports from countries violating a U.S.-Russian Federation treaty governing fishing in the Bering Sea "donut hole." The 102nd Congress also enacted Title VIII of P.L. 102-587 to implement a Convention for the Conservation of Anadromous Stocks in the North Pacific Ocean -- an agreement banning fishing for Pacific salmon in international waters for all Parties, and coordinating scientific studies on Pacific salmon among the United States, Russia, Canada, and Japan. The U.S. Senate, in the 103rd Congress, approved the High Seas Reflagging Agreement on October 6, 1994. Provisions to implement this Agreement were enacted in Title I of P.L. 104-43. Title II of this Act was enacted to implement full U.S. participation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization to express U.S. resolve to work cooperatively through regional multilateral agreements.

The 105th Congress may have occasion to consider the presidential request for advise and consent on the renegotiated United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is unlikely that any additional implementing legislation would be required for the Straddling Stocks and Highly Migratory Stocks Agreement, as this Agreement reflects the approach already taken by the United States in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and other U.S. fishery law. In March 1997, NMFS released a draft U.S. implementation plan for the United Nations Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. What specific measures should the United States undertake to implement the United Nations Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing?
  2. What additional technologies from the Department of Defense and elsewhere can be used to improve enforcement of international fishery agreements?
  3. How best can the United States provide leadership for resolving international fishery disputes and promoting restoration of interjurisdictional fish stocks?

Sources and References for Further Information

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Agreements to Promote Fishery Conservation and Management in International Waters. CRS Report for Congress 96-56 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Jan. 5, 1996. 16 p.

---------------. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna: International Management of a Shared Resource. CRS Report for Congress 95-367 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.) Washington, DC: Mar. 8, 1995. 26 p.

----------------. Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. CRS Report for Congress 93-324 ENR. [by Eugene H. Duck.] Washington, DC: Mar.17, 1993. 4 p.

-------------. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: Living Resources Provisions. CRS Report for Congress 95-4 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Dec.19, 1994. 6 p.


11 Much of this information is derived from Federal Register notices by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of State.

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