Fisheries have occupied an important place in the economic structure of many countries throughout history. The Black Sea fisheries formed an important source of Phoenician and Greek income; Spanish and Sicilian waters yielded fish for Rome; the economy of the Hanseatic League was partly based on the North Sea herring fisheries; cod fishing was a chief industry of New England; and fisheries in the Pacific are vital to Japan. For that reason fishing rights have long been the basis of controversy.
In the modern age such disputes have generally been settled by arbitration or by treaties. Fishing rights that had been enjoyed by the American colonists on the entire Atlantic coast were confirmed in the Treaty of Paris (1783), but the right to dry fish on the Newfoundland coast and on the settled parts of the Labrador and Nova Scotian coasts (except by agreement with the inhabitants) was expressly denied. The outbreak of the War of 1812 led to a new treaty (1818) that further restricted American rights. This convention was replaced by the reciprocity treaty of 1854, which abolished all restrictions except for shellfish. But disputes continued until 1910, when the North Atlantic Coast Fisheries Arbitration at The Hague ended the prolonged controversy. Canada and the United States in 1923 and 1930 signed agreements regulating the halibut fisheries of the N Pacific.
In 1882 Great Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, and Belgium signed the North Sea Fisheries Convention, which ended lawlessness in that area by granting a mutual right of visit, search, and arrest to the public vessels of the treaty powers. A similar treaty, regulating the fishing banks off Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, was signed by Great Britain and Denmark in 1901, and three years later Anglo-French rights in the N Atlantic were set forth in a convention. The fisheries of the Pacific have also been the subject of many international agreements, such as the Japanese right to fish in specified sections of Siberian waters, first granted by the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905 and continued by later agreements.
To stabilize international rules governing national rights in the oceans, the United Nations convened the Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1974; one of its concerns was to protect fisheries. The oceans have long been used as a dumping ground, but pollution levels in the open seas as well as coastal areas have risen sharply, thus endangering fisheries. Another threat has been overfishing, which in some areas has severely depleted the available catch; major predatory species such as sharks, tuna, and cod—which are also highly desirable as food fish—dropped by the early 21st cent. to a third of their levels 100 years before.
In 1996 the U.S. federal government imposed strict limits on fishing in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, in order to protect the declining New England fishing industry; in 1999 restrictions were imposed along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in an attempt to conserve depleted stocks of shark, tuna, and marlin. Overfishing is not limited to seas off developed nations; the Java Sea in Indonesia, for example, has been fished to the point where local fishermen cannot count on a catch sufficient to feed their families.
For many years, most countries recognized a 12-nautical-mile (22-km) exclusive fisheries zone, but the rise of fleets of factory ships that could catch and process huge quantities of fish severely reduced catches. The Law of the Sea treaty (1982, in force from 1994) established a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) limit inside which countries had the exclusive right to regulate fishing, and in 1997 the United States set a 200-nautical-mile territorial zone to protect its fisheries. The United Nations sponsored (1999) a nonbinding agreement among seafaring nations to address the problem of overfishing worldwide by reducing the size of their fishing fleets.
International efforts to protect marine resources have also involved whaling. The International Whaling Commission outlawed most whaling in 1986, but some countries have refused to comply.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.