McCormack Speaks

The Freedom to Fish: International Fishing through a Local Lens by Jack Whitacre


By Jack Whitacre, a McCormack Graduate School student

image of a fishing vesselI’ve heard it said that life is about survival, and just as animals use their teeth, people use the law. Growing up I fished on the shores of Maine, however over the years the fish stopped biting. I learned from National Geographic how commercial vessels have overfished international waters too. A lonely fishing lure launched a question about the roots of the international legal order at sea: Which rules are governing our planet’s fishing and how did they come to be?

While many people associate global fishing with the industrial revolution and the offshore processing plants of the 1930’s, the Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas reveals that itinerant European fishing expeditions crossed the Atlantic well before Columbus. Many of today’s finest fishing vessels pale in comparison to the boats of the past. For example, as early as 1540 the Spanish and French Basques had fishing ships weighing up to 600 tons. Because so many countries, people, and religious leaders derived sustenance and success from the sea there has historically been competition for resources. In 1609 the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain locked horns to debate whether the oceans were private or public property. A legal scholar named Hugo Grotius won the argument for the concept of free seas which has guided international affairs ever since.

However, while Hugo clarified the freedom of boats to navigate the seas, he actually generated more questions than answers about the freedom to fish. What makes something “ownable”? Do people have an endless right to a resource if it destroys the resource for all? With today’s overfishing, it may be wise to revisit these two underlying philosophical considerations.

In ancient times, the Athenians and Plautina held that the sea was common and whatever anyone hooked was theirs. Yet in a river, fish pond, or bay, the fishing that benefits one person simultaneously detracts from the benefits of everyone else. Grotius applied this phenomena internationally by saying that if any nation, like Rome, could forbid something it would be “fishing, whereby it may be said after a sort that fishes may be taken, yet they could not forbid navigation, whereby the sea loseth nothing.” Today, some countries have deeply considered these questions, like European Union. countries which developed the Common Fisheries Policy, a quota system within exclusive economic zones (EEZ). This shows how changes to fishing norms, and all of their various contexts, can come from sovereign nations harmonizing their own practices rather than the creation of a new international organization or a United Nations mandate.

The freedom to fish is still up for discussion because international law is neither fixed nor fluid. Whether greed is innate or culturally conditioned, every person can take concrete steps to improving the global seafood commons. New England consumers can participate in “law in action” by a) enjoying local seafood, like cod, herring, and lobster from Gloucester, mussels, clams, and oysters from Maine, and scallops from New Bedford, b) selecting products with sustainable certificates when buying seafood from abroad, and c) choosing fish like sardines over larger fish like tuna with heftier environmental footprints. These decisions all have an impact because we live in a world that is interconnected by the ocean, commerce, and ideas.

As the environmental philosopher/advocate John Muir wrote ,”When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Whether a person fishes for a living, loves seafood seared in lemon and butter, or teaches at a local school, our actions and reflections actively shape the world internationally and at home. As anyone who has fished along river knows, time is of the essence, because once an area is overfished it loses a piece of itself.

Jack Whitacre is a National Science Foundation fellow at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he is earning a PhD in Global Governance and Human Security at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Whitacre studies coasts and coastal communities and hopes to improve the economy and environment through his research and writing.

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