Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/April 1910/Preservation of the Fisheries on the High Seas

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PRESERVATION OF THE FISHERIES ON THE HIGH SEAS
By CHARLES HUGH STEVENSON, LL.M., D.C.L.

DETROIT, MICH.

THE fishery resources on the high seas can not be regulated and conserved by municipal or national laws, and the governments of the world are in a just sense the trustees for the management of this great wealth, this common field, where all reap and none sow, where all harvest and none plant.

It is to the common interest of all nations to prevent indiscriminate depletion of these resources. Useless destruction is a crime against posterity. Doubtless a century hence no policy of our great president will add more largely to his fame than his efforts toward preserving the natural resources, and no branch of these calls for more prompt international consideration than the resources of the high seas.

Upon the subject of the preservation of these resources so that their yield may continue undiminished, so much is appropriate to be said that one is lost in the abundance of it. The animal and vegetable products of the seas differ almost as widely in their characteristics and needs as those on land, and equally diversified and complicated are the problems concerning the most favorable conditions of their production and development.

Fortunately, the problem of sewage pollution, doubtless the greatest destructive factor in the inland and the coastal fisheries, has little or no existence in a consideration of the resources of the areas under consideration.

From the standpoint of protective needs, the fishery products of the high seas may be roughly divided into four general classes, viz.: (1) the migratory species, such as herring, mackerel, bluefish, etc.; (2) the bottom or ground species, such as cod, haddock, flounder and flatfish, which are less migratory in their habits and remain in the same general locality; (3) those products which are fixed to the bottom and are to some extent susceptible of ownership, as sponges, pearl oysters, etc.; and (4) the aquatic mammals.

As regards the migratory fishes, there is an increasing belief that serious impairment of these species is beyond our present demands on them, and that the destruction effected by man is but child's play compared with nature's work in that direction. Many states from time to time have enacted restrictive legislation with a view to preserving them, but estimation of the beneficial effect of these regulations is generally discredited.

Since this legislation interferes with the established uses and customs of the fishermen, the burden is upon those who advocate it to prove that the benefit will outweigh the inconvenience. Ever since the influential voice of Huxley was lifted in its defense, the policy of unrestricted capture of the migratory species has continued to grow, this view being strongly supported by many eminent authorities of the present day.

With respect to the bottom fishes, cod, haddock, flatfish, etc., our present knowledge of the remedial effects of fishery restriction is so slight as scarcely to furnish a satisfactory basis even for national waters, much less for complicated international restrictions.

For the purpose of determining the best regulations for preserving the fishery resources with the maximum extent of their utilization, it is not easy to exaggerate the importance of systematic research in marine biology and the effect of fishing operations. Excellent work of this nature has been done and is yet in progress in many countries where the fisheries are of great extent.

International restrictions have been of two general classes, the one for preserving the resources and the other for the maintenance of good order among the fishermen and for preventing the destruction of property. To the former class belong the Bering Sea fur seal regulations, and in some particulars the Anglo-French regulations of 1843; while all the remaining conventions and regulations, the North Sea Conventions of 1882 and 1891, the Anglo-Denmark Convention of 1901 and the Sub-marine Cable Convention of 1884 are of the second class. A review of the history of these regulations shows that the arrangement of joint action is a tedious and difficult matter and ratification of the convention is always uncertain. Indeed, except so far as concerns the police of the fisheries, it does not appear that great practical benefit has resulted from the regulations already enacted for the fisheries in the international waters.

For the preservation of the coastal fisheries by means of municipal regulations, as well as for the more important matters of national defense and safety, the opinion is growing that the three-mile limit of the territorial waters is too narrow and that it should be extended considerably beyond the present distance.

This limit had its origin in the range of cannon, which determined the distance over which a nation was able to exercise jurisdiction from the shore. Since the efficiency of cannon has greatly increased, and is now considerably more than three miles, it is urged that the width of the maritime belt should increase correspondingly. In recent years most of the writers on international law have expressed views favorable to this increase.

The extension of the marginal belt was discussed by the Institut de Droit International at its meeting in Paris in 1904. The general opinion was that such an extension was desirable, and it was agreed without a dissenting vote to recommend an increase to six miles, after the proposal to extend it to ten miles had been rejected by twenty-five votes against ten.

However, in view of the approval which the three-mile margin has received in international conventions, legislative bodies and judicial tribunals, the indefiniteness of centuries ago has become the vested rights of to-day, the once plastic cement which the workmen molded has now become so set and solidified with the passage of time that it is useless to discuss an extension of the distance of exclusive jurisdiction without absolute international agreement.

It can not be denied that such an extension would be vigorously opposed by some influential interests. Doubtless one is safe in stating that the trawl fishermen of Great Britain, for instance, would unquestionably object to it, and for very practical reasons. Exclusive of the White Sea and the Baltic, the trawling area outside the three-mile limit of northern and western Europe approximates 450,000 square miles. An extension of the marginal belt to six miles would place 81,000 square miles of this area within the territorial jurisdiction of continental countries, and an extension four miles further would exclude British fishermen from 135,000 square miles of the best trawling grounds, an area nearly equal to that of the North Sea. As the British trawling fleet greatly exceeds that of all the continental countries, the fishermen of Great Britain would have much to lose and nothing to gain by the extension.

On this side of the Atlantic, acceptance of the extension would depend very largely on how it would affect the rights and treaty privileges of the United States along the shores of the British provinces, which probably more than any other factor has influenced the present firm position of this government respecting a marginal belt of a marine league only.

More important from an economic point of view than several miles increase in the width of the marine belt is a clear and unquestioned international recognition of vested rights in attempts to exploit and develop definite areas of ground under the high seas, as in the cultivation of sponges, corals, pearl oysters, etc. There is a distinction in law as well as in fact between such an industry and a fishery dependent on the pursuit of free swimming fish in the ocean. Oysters, sponges and the like represent a peculiar kind of property. They are not feræ naturæ, as they do not stray nor do they require taming, hence ownership may be acquired in them.

It can not be affirmed that this extension of territorial jurisdiction to cultivated sea bottoms has ever been made the basis of any treaty or agreement, or has even been the subject of diplomatic discussion. With the single exception of Vattel, the older writers on international law were silent on this matter, and even Vattel seems not to have clearly distinguished it from the exercise of jurisdiction over migratory fishes in the seas near the marginal belt, a doctrine which has long since been discredited.

Very natural was the silence of the older publicists on this subject, since there was no occasion for recognition of this view until a very recent period. The spirit of scientific investigation and of industrial development is everywhere, and in few directions have these made greater progress in the last score or two of years than in the possibilities of cultivating the sea bottoms. Millions of dollars' worth of oysters are now grown on areas which thirty years ago were barren wastes. Biologists are obtaining excellent results in sponge culture in the Gulf of Mexico, and are investigating coral growth in the Mediterranean. Careful observers are awakening to the possibilities of pearl culture, not simply to raise the mollusks which yield pearls fitfully and at rare intervals, but to insure and to increase the yield of pearls within these mollusks, and thus to obtain remunerative returns without the arduous toil and the element of hazard inseparable from pearling as now prosecuted.

And must the work of these investigators, must the enterprises which they stimulate, be restricted to the bounds of the marine league while the broad areas of shallow bays and gulfs remain barren? Must we plant and harvest but along the wave-washed shores of the maritime belt and leave the rich meadows of the sea bottoms to waste? Must the work be handicapped by the refusal of international law to concede to these enterprises the elements of ownership, which must be wholly lacking unless territorial jurisdiction apply to the areas which they exploit?

Numerous instances exist in which fisheries for pearl oysters, etc., prosecuted beyond the marginal belt, are the subject of fostering care on the part of a government or its people. By careful supervision as to close seasons, size limits, etc., and in some cases special preparation of the bottom and even removal of predaceous enemies, the output from these areas is conserved and increased. Instances of this kind, under state authority or recognition, may be regarded as an occupation of the bed of the sea, and territorial jurisdiction should rightly extend to them even though they be carried on beyond the marginal belt ordinarily recognized by international law. Even Grotius's Mare Uberum is founded upon the old doctrine of Roman law that there can be no property in anything without occupation. And while the vagrant waters of the ocean can not be subjected and occupied, the sponge beds and pearl reefs can be even as the hills and the prairies.

This view is founded not only on justice, but likewise on necessity. Man's eagerness has so nearly exhausted the easily exploited resources that fostering care is essential to the best development and use of the sea bottom. Left to the chance of nature and subject to despoilment by every one without hindrance, these areas would remain barren wastes. Law and government are for the benefit of humanity, not to foster waste. The aim of international law is the welfare and happiness of the general society of mankind, and this would not be promoted by a policy which would keep the sea bottoms forever unproductive. The reason for the freedom of the high seas is the freedom of intercourse and commerce between the states, the seas being the common highway; and a recognition of the occupancy by an individual nation of so much of the sea bottom as it may actually improve and develop does not impair the perfect freedom of navigation by vessels of all nations, as this occupancy is subordinate to the right of navigation and fishery and can not be exercised in derogation thereof.

Necessarily in the recognition of this extension of jurisdiction, the interests of the various states must be carefully guarded, and especially of those near the areas to be exploited. Within general limits, the right of exploitation and development must be reserved to the nation within whose sphere of influence the particular area is situated, for it would be manifestly unjust, indeed extremely unwise, to establish a principle by which a nation could appropriate to itself a resource off the shores of a less enterprising country. The privilege of exploiting the sea bottom in the whole of the Gulf of California, for instance, should undoubtedly rest with the Mexican people; Ceylon and British India should have control of that in the Gulf of Manar, and the riparian states should possess those in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

However we may view the protective needs of the migratory and the bottom fishes, the situation is quite different with respect to the great marine vertebrates, the seals, walrus, manatees, sea otters and many species of whales. These animals are approaching practical exhaustion with great rapidity, and prompt action seems necessary if they are to be preserved from extinction.

This is not the language of exaggeration. Under the influence of the bounty of $25 which industrial use offers for the life of a fur seal, $300 for a sea otter and $8,000 for an arctic whale, these animals are passing away far more rapidly than is generally realized, the entire annual product of sea otters throughout the world now approximating only 200 and of arctic whales less than 100 each year. The timid whalebone whales have been swept from the navigable seas and are nowhere to be found except in the most remote ice fields of the frigid zones.

The walrus are almost exterminated in the seas north of Europe; and where they were formerly so plentiful in Bering Sea, they are to be found only in one small herd, which hauls out in the spring and fall on the islets off Port Heiden, on the Alaska Peninsula.

It is shocking to contemplate the indifference with which the civilized world has witnessed, nay, not only witnessed but encouraged the slaughter, almost to the point of extinction, of highly organized animals evidencing traits of affection and devotion which would do honor to human beings. Everywhere, in every sea, it is the same story, destroy! destroy! destroy! What more pathetic sight in the whole range of man's ruthless destruction than the thousands of nursing fur seals starving and dead on the shores of the Pacific islands as a result of the inhuman butchery of their nurture-seeking mothers in the waters of Bering Sea and the North Pacific. At the present rate of decrease the day is not far distant when they will have become as extinct as the buffalo of the American prairies.

Pet it not be understood that our sympathy for the highly organized creatures of the sea would withhold them from industrial use. The slaughter of animals under proper safeguards, whether they be in the seas or under domestic care, does not in itself constitute needless cruelty, for the end of every individual, beast or human, is pathetic, whether it result from sudden accident or through the waste of years. When this slaughter is so conducted that it is conservative utilization, with due care for the welfare and perpetuation of the species as a whole, it is but the most intelligent application of nature's wisest law of the survival of the fittest. The preservation which we would extend to these animals is largely for the purpose of their greater use. We would surround them with such protection and take them only under such conditions as would tend to increase their numbers and thus make them of far greater value to the hardy fishermen whose industry has won renown in all ages. It is hoped that the wide public interest attracted to the preservation of our natural resources will result in preventing the now imminent extermination of these species, whose zoologic and philosophic worth far exceeds their economic value.

It is beyond the limits of this paper to outline the proper direction of the efforts to preserve these resources. But in view of the fact that the fisheries on the high seas represent the greatest economic resource which the nations of the world hold in common for their joint use, it seems that there might be wisdom in a general treaty or international union for their consideration. Already there are several treaties of this nature with special international offices for the purpose of satisfying economic and other nonpolitical interests, such as the Universal Postal Union, established in 1874, the Union for the Protection of Industrial Property in 1883, and the Union for the Protection of Works of Literature and Art in 1886. More closely allied to our subject is the convention in behalf of the preservation of wild animals, birds and fish in Africa, which was signed in London on May 19, 1900, by France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Kongo Free State.

And at this time when the preservation of natural resources is receiving so much attention, what subject more worthy of consideration than the economic conservation of the resources of the seas? A brotherhood of great nations arranging not the partition of nature's inheritance among themselves for speedy waste and despoilment, but the preservation of that inheritance for beneficial use in common by all the people of the earth; each to draw upon that storehouse of wealth only in accordance with the common welfare of all, for the sustenance of its citizens, for the comfort of its people and for the advancement of civilization throughout the world.

 
PSM V76 D400 View of the tortugas laboratory in 1906.png
Fig. 1. General View of the Tortugas Laboratory from the Northwest in 1906.