Fishing Treaties and Laws: International Cooperation to Protect Aquatic Ecosystems

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  • 0:01 Fisheries Are in Trouble
  • 2:38 1973 - Cites & Marpol
  • 4:06 U.S. Laws
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Many of the world's fisheries are in decline. This has led to the creation of both national and international conservation laws to protect them and the ecosystems they inhabit, ensuring that they will be around for generations to come.

Fisheries Are in Trouble

Fish are not only delicious to eat, they're also very healthy. Millions of people all over the world depend on this important protein source, but due to a variety of issues, such as habitat degradation, climate change, and an increase in consumption, both fisheries and the ecosystems they inhabit are in trouble.

Overfishing, which is when more fish are caught than can be replaced naturally by the population, has serious consequences for both fish stocks and the environment. Unfortunately, it's estimated that at least 80% of the world's monitored fisheries are either fully or overexploited. This means that these fisheries are being fished above a sustainable level and are at risk of disappearing forever.

Reversing this trend is challenging for a number of reasons. It's easy to see the damage done by clear-cutting a forest, but we rarely see the effects of fishing gear, like bottom trawls, which essentially have the same impact on the sea floor. There's also a common misconception that because the oceans are so large and deep that there is a never-ending supply from which we can harvest. Additionally, much of the vast ocean waters do not fall in the legal jurisdiction of any one country, making regulation an international cooperation issue.

The good news is that many problems associated with overfishing, such as food web disruption, destruction of the physical environment, and fishery collapse, have been recognized, and there are now many national and international laws in place to help stop overfishing, as well as curb the damage it causes. Let's look a little more closely at some of the major international laws and treaties in place to protect fisheries and aquatic ecosystems.

1982 - UNCLOS

One of the most important international laws for aquatic systems is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. This convention sets a comprehensive legal framework to regulate the space, uses, and resources of the world's oceans, which includes fisheries, marine mammals, and even aquatic plants.

UNCLOS provides protection for marine environments, provisions regarding legal boundaries within the oceans, and maintains traditional regulations for ocean uses while also introducing modern regulations as new issues arise. This convention was monumental because it extended international laws to the oceans and the ecosystems and organisms that inhabit them, making conservation an international responsibility.


You've likely heard of the Endangered Species Act, which is the defining law in the U.S. for protecting animals from extinction. You can think of CITES, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, as the international version of this because its aim is to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of animals and plants in the wild.

CITES was signed into law in 1973 and is very important for fisheries because many fish and other marine species migrate incredible distances and cross national boundaries. These species are often traded internationally, meaning that in order to conserve them, international cooperation among multiple nations is required. CITES sets the stage for regulation of this international trade, helping to ensure their survival.

Another important law of 1973 is MARPOL, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships. The acronym comes from the combination of the two words 'Marine Pollution' and is designed to minimize ocean pollution from ships, such as oil and exhaust, dumping, and any other intentional or accidental source of ocean pollution. Pollution is a major factor in the loss of fish and fish habitats, so minimizing the effects of ocean pollution is helpful in maintaining sustainable fisheries and aquatic ecosystems.

U.S. Laws

The '70s were a golden decade for environmental regulation, both internationally and in the United States. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, or MMPA, was enacted in 1972 to protect marine mammals from human activities. This law banned any capture, killing, hunting, or harming of marine mammals, as well as the importation of any marine mammals or their products.

Commercial fishing gear is a major player in the death and injury of marine mammals. Because of this, the MMPA requires commercial fisheries to take steps to reduce their effects on marine mammal species to what are called 'insignificant levels.' Heard of dolphin-safe tuna? That's just one way this law has influenced fisheries to be more mindful and sustainable.

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