Fishing: Regulations Under International Law

February 10, 2021Lu Shegay


Fishing is a widespread activity around the world. The term of fishing is not limited to catching only fish, it applies to different kinds of species inhabiting the oceans and seas. Overfishing, however, is making a lot of species of aquatic animals vulnerable and in some cases leads to some species going extinct or being threatened with extinction. Moreover, catching certain species of aquatic animals cause the disappearance of other aquatic animals.

In accordance with the statistics provided by the FAO, the number of commercial fishers and fish farmers is approximately 38 million. In 2005, the consumption of fish that was captured from wild fisheries was 14.4 kilograms.

There are three types of fishing in terms of goals, which are commercial fishing, fishing for farms, and fishing for food. In commercial fishing, almost all species of aquatic animals are caught, starting with tuna, cod, salmon to shrimp, krill, lobster, clams, squid, crab. Mostly, in commercial fishing, fishermen use large nets due to their efficiency and sea-going processing factories. According to the FAO report, in 2000, the total world capture of fish was 86 million tons. The top producing countries were mainland China, Peru, Japan, United States, Chile, Russia, India, Thailand, Iceland, Norway, Indonesia.

Aquaculture is another widespread activity across the globe and is used in many countries. Aquaculture is raising fish commercially in tanks, which is then subsequently sold for food consumption. Species that are usually raised on farms are salmon, carp, tilapia, catfish, trout, etc.

Finally, fish species are sold or used for food, especially in Asian countries where the demand for seafood is high. Apart from seafood, some species are used in different products, such as alcohol, fish glue, fish oil, etc. Fish species are also used for trade in aquariums, research, and pet stores.

Fishing activities affect our climate and lead to the reduction of species living in the wild. The regulation of the fish population and establishing the conservation of species requires international cooperation. Some international conventions were adopted to fulfill this purpose and to provide that fish stocks shall be managed by countries.

Climate Change Effect on the Oceans

Oceans cover 70% of the Earth and are an essential part of our everyday life providing oxygen that humans need. According to the Living Blue Planet Report 2015, the size of the marine population declined by 49% in 1970-2012. The main reasons for that are overfishing activities, illegal activities, and climate change, another man-made threat that most people do not understand yet. A lot of countries and communities are more susceptible to the climate change effect, especially island countries. Fishing activities lead to the reduction of the number of some species of aquatic animals.

Northern areas of the Earth are also affected by climate change because of warming, for instance, the Arctic is “on the front lines of climate change.” Melting ice causes a lot of species of aquatic animals to die because of lack of food (polar bears) and also lead sometimes to attacking people (sharks).

Climate change leads to ocean acidification, which means that oceans become more acidic with the decrease in the pH in the ocean caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Over the last 200 years, the Earth’s waters absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon due to anthropogenic activities. Currently, carbon dioxide concentrations are higher than at any time in the last 800 000 years. Learn more here.

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Legal Instruments


The United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, for instance, is not an animal-focused treaty, but this instrument helps understand the rules of a certain maritime zone. Any waters start with the territorial waters, it goes further to contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, and high seas. UNCLOS provides general duties of countries to “protect and preserve the marine environment in the maritime zones and high seas areas.” UNCLOS is also binding to all countries because the provisions that are contained in this treaty are customary law, meaning that any country is bound by the provisions unless it expressed persistent objection in time.

The breadth of the territorial waters is 12 nautical miles from the baseline and only the coastal State has the authority over this maritime zone. Beyond this area, in the contiguous zone, which is up to 24 nautical miles, the coastal State would have limited rights that are balanced with other States. The exclusive economic zone that goes after is up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline, all States shall have “due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal State” and shall “comply with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal State” in accordance with the UNCLOS provisions.

In the high seas, the area does not belong to any jurisdiction and where problems of fishing occur most of the time. In that maritime zone, States have “exclusive authority over vessels flying their flag, or otherwise registered in their State.”

Also, Article 64 provides that national’s fish in the regions for highly migratory species that are listed in Annex I “shall cooperate directly or through appropriate international organizations with a view to ensuring the conservation and promoting the objective of optimum utilization of such species throughout the region.”

Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement

The Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement fills the gaps left by UNCLOS and provides obligations for States regarding fishing outside the exclusive economic zone of any coastal State. It also provides that coastal States shall conduct cooperative mechanisms with straddling stocks and highly migratory species within their exclusive economic zone. The objective of the agreement is “to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks.” With regard to the definition of a “fish,” it states that a fish includes mollusks and crustaceans.

The agreement does not encourage flag States to authorize vessels for fishing activities operating on the high seas unless they are members of a certain regional fisheries management organization. If a State is a member of the regional fisheries management organizations, it is obliged to “adopt and apply international minimum standards for the responsible conduct of fishing operations,” “establish appropriate cooperative mechanisms for effective monitoring, control, surveillance and enforcement,” etc.

Moreover, it is possible to inspect certain vessels that violate the provisions of the agreement. In this case, a State can board and inspect the vessel-violator flagged to another State. The flag State becomes responsible for the process of prosecuting, monitoring, and enforcing provisions of the agreement with regard to conservation and management of living resources.

Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas

The Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas is an agreement that was adopted to resolve the issues of the conservation of living resources in the high seas through international cooperation. Currently, it has 39 parties and 21 countries that signed the convention but have not ratified it yet. Among the parties of the convention are Australia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Colombia, Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Fiji, Finland, France, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Montenegro, Netherlands, Nigeria, Portugal, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, and Venezuela. Among countries that signed but have not ratified the convention are Afghanistan, Argentina, Bolivia, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ghana, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Liberia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Panama, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Uruguay.

The provisions on the conservation of living resources in the high seas, according to the convention, means “the aggregate of the measures rendering possible the optimum sustainable yield from those resources so as to secure a maximum supply of food and other marine products.” (Art. 2) The convention also regulates the issue if two or more countries are engaged in the same fishing stocks or other living marine resources in any area or high seas areas, they shall “enter into negotiations with a view to prescribing by agreement for their nationals the necessary measures for the conservation of the living resources affected.”


The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is an international convention that aims to preserve marine life and environmental integrity in and near Antarctica. It covers several Marine Protected Areas (MPA), such as South Orkneys, Ross Sea, and East Antarctic. CCAMLR provides that contracting Parties, whether they are not parties to the treaty or not, shall comply with the provisions prescribed by the convention. It also states that the contracting Parties which are not Parties to the convention “acknowledge the special obligations and responsibilities of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties for the protection and preservation of the environment of the Antarctic Treaty area.”

Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing

The Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing is an international treaty that was adopted under the FAO that aimed at preventing and eliminating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities. The treaty provides that fishing vessels shall have permission to dock at a port and are obliged to notify the port about the details of their fishing operations. The dock keeps the right to deny the permission if unregulated fishing occurs by the fishing vessel requesting the permit. The treaty also includes the provision on inspecting equipment, paperwork, catches, and vessels’ records. According to the last data, the treaty had 55 parties, among which were 54 parties and the European Union.

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Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission

Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission (APFIC) is the Regional Fisheries Body created by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to cover issues of fisheries, aquaculture, and other issues related to aquatic sources in the Asia-Pacific region. The agency is focused on raising awareness among member countries, fisheries organizations, and fisheries experts in the Asia-Pacific region. The agency covered issues on regional fisheries, co-management of fisheries, bycatch, and others.

North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization

North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) is an international organization that was established under the Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was created due to the failure of countries to protect the global salmon population. Currently, the members of NASCO are Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Norway, Russia, United States.

Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is an organization that was established by the Convention on the Conservation of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean to conserve and manage tuna and other highly migratory fish stocks in the western and central areas of the Pacific Ocean.

The agency was based in accordance with the Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement and addressed the issues of participation of fishing organizations legally binding them to its provisions. Read more here.


Climate change and main anthropogenic activities, such as fishing and aquaculture, affect the animals’ population and the environment. To protect and preserve the marine species and marine environment, it is crucial to take the necessary steps to prevent the population of animals from going extinct or being threatened with extinction. International law is a good source to monitor, inspect, and govern the maritime zones, but international cooperation is necessary to achieve this goal. However, illegal activities or incompliance with the obligations of a certain treaty still occur, so it becomes important for countries to pay more attention to the activities that they and other countries exercise in the waters.

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