In June, the 15 member states of the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF) adopted a system of national quotas which allocated among themselves shares of the estimated yields of 14 separate stocks of ground fish. In the long history of international fisheries arrangements last year's action was the first major attempt to divide a portion of the sea's wealth explicitly among a large number of countries. A related, and even more innovative, proposal was advanced in October when the US commissioners asked that regulation of fishing effort— that is, of the equipment and manpower used—be considered in the ICNAF area. This memorandum was followed a month later by suggestions of measures that could be used to control effort in those portions of the total area that are of most direct interest to U.S. fishermen.
The size of the Northwest Atlantic area—which extends north from the latitude of Cape Hatteras almost to the top of Baffin Bay and east from the North American Coast to the longitude of Greenland Cape Farewell on the 44th parallel—and the importance of its fisheries make the new developments significant in their own right. They also are significant for the effects they could have upon the forthcoming United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. The dates for that long-anticipated conference were definitely set during the year: the procedural work will begin in November 1973, with substantive deliberations to start early in 1974.
The centuries-old principle of freedom of the seas, which, among other things, guarantees that ocean fisheries are free and open to all corners, is the root cause of almost every modern problem of fisheries management. With open access, no fisherman has incentive to restrain his catch in the interest of future returns. What he leaves in the sea for tomorrow will be taken by others today. One result is physical depletion. With every man—and every nation—for himself, the annual catch of many stocks of fish has been pushed beyond the level at which maximum yield can be sustained over long periods. Evidence of depletion is found throughout the world, from the whales of the Antarctic to the herrings of the North Sea. Another result is economic waste—that is, the redundant effort that could have been profitably expended in other directions. This kind of waste is harder to gauge than physical waste, though certainly much more significant. It was estimated in 1968, for example, that the overall level of effort in the North Atlantic could have been reduced by 10 to 20 percent with no decrease—perhaps with even a small increase—in average long-term catches. In money terms this would have saved $50 million to $100 million in annual fishing costs. An estimate for 1973 would be considerably larger because of the increase in fishing effort since then.
The new Northwest Atlantic arrangement is by far the most elaborate quota program ever inaugurated. The convention for the area, dating from 1950, provided only limited regulations. The most important of these was establishment of a minimum size of the mesh used in nets, designed to let smaller fish escape. Other permitted limitations were quotas on total catch, closed seasons, closed areas, and restrictions on gear.
The controls that were adopted proved ineffective in the face of the large and continued increases to fishing. It has become possible to decimate a fish stock in one or two seasons. For example, in one sub-area of the Northwest Atlantic, the haddock catch had averaged 50,000 tons for many years until 1965 and 1966, when there was a large national increase in stock. This attracted an expedition of Soviet vessels. The catch, mostly by U.S. and Russian fishermen, during those two years was 155,000 and 127,000 tons respectively. This level was much more than the stock could bear and it fell off rapidly, to a low of 12,000 tons in 1971. For 1973 a total quota of only 6,000 tons has been set, a limit particularly damaging to many New England fishermen, who depend heavily on haddock for their income.
The failure of the regulatory device available to ICNAF prompted discussion of new techniques. After considering both limitations effort and national stock-by-stock quotas, the commission decided that the first alternative was too difficult and that the second, though also difficult, seemed more feasible. It was thought also that if agreement could be reached on distributing the catch, the individual countries could if they wished take steps to enable their vessels to operate more efficiently. The convention was amended in January 1972 to permit employment of national quotas.
The June agreement was signed by the 15 nations which then were members of the commission: Canada, Denmark, France, West Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, U.S.S.R., United Kingdom, and United States. Bulgaria joined later in the year, and Cuba indicated intentions of doing so. East Germany sends vessels to the area and is expected to join when its problems of sovereignty are more fully resolved.
In terms of total catch, when 1973 quotas for all of the 14 species are added together, the five countries with the largest quotas in the Northwest Atlantic are U.S.S.R., with 22.3 percent of the total; Spain, with 16.5 percent; Canada, 16.3; Portugal, 11.2; and the United States, 10.2. The percentages drop down to 0.7 for both Iceland and Italy.
The formula on which allocations were based took account of both past and present patterns of catch; the special interests as coastal states of Canada and the United States; and other special conditions, including the potential interests of newcomers. It was finally decided that the records of the past ten years and of the past three years should each be given a 40 percent weight, with an additional 10 percent as the preferential share of the coastal states and the remaining 10 percent reserved for new entrants and special conditions.
In setting the quotas for individual species, consideration was given to the likelihood that efforts displaced from catching one stock would be diverted to others. Consequently, quotas were also set for some stocks that are not being fully utilized at present.
In adopting the new quotas ICNAF members faced up to the fact that past programs of management had been ineffective. This in itself was a step forward. Even more impressive was the fact that so many countries with such divergent interests could reach specific agreement on sharing the yields of so many kinds of fish. A ceiling on the catch of each species should, if set correctly, go far toward protecting the stocks from depletion. And each nation, with the assurance of an assigned share of the total catch, should, presumably, be able to regulate its own fishing effort so as to reduce wasteful use of excess capital or manpower.
How well will the system work? Here there are some large questions. Some are inherent in the agreement itself. The most important of these is lack of provision for transferring quotas, which makes for serious inflexibility.
A related problem is the difficulty of accommodating new parties wishing to enter the fishery. Several countries have started fishing within the region in recent years and others may wish to enter in the future. The reservation of 10 percent for both new entrants and special conditions is not large. At some future point, the only way for accommodating new entry may be by decreasing the shares of the present members.
The shelter that national quotas appear to give to member nations wishing to increase the efficiency of their own fleets may turn out to be more theoretical than real, and thus not go far toward reducing economic waste in fisheries. One reason for this is that a heavy investment of effort at the opening of the season could lead to the dispersal and thinning of the stocks, making it more difficult to take fish later on. Thus, nations that rush in first with many large vessels will be able to fill their quotas easily, while nations without such capacity may find that their quotas come at higher costs.
In addition to these and other special problems are the costs and difficulties of administering a complex multi-nation, multi-fish program. Revision of total quotas and their allocations will be a major task; the job of monitoring and enforcement probably will be much larger.
Doubts that the new system would be effective prompted the US proposals for regulating fishing effort in addition to national quotas. The October memorandum, asking that the general issue be considered, was based on “the conclusion that catch quotas on a species by species basis, despite the refinements and broader application initiated by the Commission, are not alone sufficient to assure stable resource conditions in the Northwest Atlantic.” The November memorandum suggested methods by which effort could be regulated in two of the six subdivisions of the Northwest Atlantic—subareas 5 and 6, off the U.S. coast from Maine to Cape Hatteras; from Delaware on south it extends eastward clear to Long. 44°W.
The US memorandum offered a method for expressing the fishing effort of various countries on a comparable basis. In this formula, small side trawlers of 150 tons or less were given a value of 1; vessels with more fishing power because of size or design were rated higher, up to a value of 6.65 for a West German stern trawler over 900 tons in size. Although it made no specific recommendations about how many standardized vessel days should be permitted in the two subareas, the memorandum pointed out that the total effort for producing the maximum yield had been reached by 1965 and that in 1971 the effort was 31 percent above the level appropriate to the maximum sustained yield.
The memorandum does not recommend how the total level of effort for the sub areas should be distributed. It does, however, suggest that, in general, allocations should be based on the same formula used in setting the national quotas, with a few modifications. Some of the modifications could be quite important, particularly the statements that "new entries should not be a significant factor" and that particular attention should be given to the unique situation of the relatively immobile fleets of small coastal vessels.
Excessive competition is a major problem in ocean fisheries management everywhere, not just in the Northwestern Atlantic. The US proposal for regulating effort attacks the problem much more directly than does a system of national quotas only. It will be interesting to see whether the ICNAF considers the suggestion for effort controls, as the U.S. commissioners have asked, and if so what detailed arrangements might be agreed upon. Acceptance of a program that would set limits upon the ways that member nations use their quotas will be hard to obtain. Many of the problems posed by the simple quota system would presumably remain, particularly the inflexibilities of no transfers among nations and the difficulties of determining the amount of allocations for newcomers. More important will be the complexities of management and enforcement that will inevitably accompany a system that attempts to control both outputs and inputs of a large number of nations for a large number of resources.
The developments taking place in the Northwest Atlantic are particularly critical for the decisions that will be discussed at the forthcoming UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. In a sense, these developments are an attempt to demonstrate the validity of the "stock-by-stock" approach as against the “economic zone” approach, the two most important alternatives for the resolution of fishery problems.
The “economic zone” approach, as suggested by Latin American countries among others, calls for the extension of jurisdiction by coastal nations, giving them the authority to determine how and in what way the resources off their coasts will be utilized. For a variety of reasons, many of the members of ICNAF (in particular the United States, U.S.S.R., and Japan), are opposed to the extension of jurisdictions. They have proposed the alternative of resolving fishery problems by multilateral agreements on each stock of fish.
There are, therefore, some pressures to make the ICNAF arrangements work. But the gamble is risky. If the system works (at least through the holding of the UN Conference), it may help to support the arguments in favor of the “stock-by-stock” approach but will not necessarily prevent the widespread adoption of economic zones. If the system fails, the adoption of economic zones is almost assured.