Student Note: Save Our Sharks

Published online on 29. February 2012

Save our sharks: Using international fisheries law within regional fisheries management organizations to improve shark conservation

Stijn van Osch


Like many fish, sharks are facing unprecedented overfishing. They have been targeted both directly for their fins and caught accidentally (bycaught) in, for instance, tuna fisheries. This has led to collapsing stocks around the world. Overfishing has led to what has been termed a mass extinction among ocean species, and sharks are no exception—they are in fact especially vulnerable. As a result, many species of sharks are now listed on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This problem can only be tackled through coordinated, cooperative action by all states. This Note explores one avenue through which states can cooperate: Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, or RFMOs. Although RFMOs have many members, this Note will focus on the United States and the European Union. Both are major powers and participants in many of the world’s RFMOs, and both have the potential to strongly impact shark conservation. The United States is particularly relevant as it has jurisdiction over a larger area of the world’s oceans than any other nation, and thus can more effectively implement and complement the RFMOs’ ocean conservation efforts through domestic legislation. Because many sharks are highly migratory species and travel readily between national waters and the high seas, unilateral policy making can only be of limited effect; the United States, the European Union (E.U.), and every other nation must cooperate within RFMOs and other relevant international organizations to protect these species. International law is an important tool in fostering international cooperation, especially when states must share living resources such as migratory species. Sharks fall under several international regimes, including the international fisheries regime. The most important development in the international fisheries regime has been the establishment of the regional fisheries organizations that feature prominently in this Note. This Note thus focuses on several Atlantic and Pacific Ocean regional organizations and their institutional frameworks, particularly those covering the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While these organizations have the potential to have a significant positive impact on shark conservation, improvement of the institutions themselves—and of the fisheries regime at large—are necessary to realize such an impact. Part I discusses some important background issues, including the reasons why sharks should be protected, the particular problems facing sharks, and unilateral steps the United States has already taken to protect them. Part II reviews how international law is relevant to shark conservation, and which regimes provide options to promote conservation. Part III analyzes the fisheries regime more specifically, examining the role RFMOs play and the interactions between international and domestic fisheries laws. This analysis shows that while fisheries organizations have taken some steps towards improved shark management, much more work is needed. This Note concludes that RFMOs have the potential to impact shark conservation positively if states push for increased shark management within these organizations. Additionally, major nations can back up the international regimes with strong domestic conservation measures to ensure that sharks are conserved for future generations.

 Michigan Journal of International Law; Vol. 33:383 Winter 2012




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