Closing the high seas to fishing could increase fish catches in coastal waters by 10%, compensating for expected losses due to climate change, finds a new Nippon Foundation-Nereus Program study published in Fish and Fisheries.

The high seas are those areas of the ocean outside the jurisdiction of countries; the high seas cover nearly two thirds of the ocean’s surface. These results could be seen by 2050 relative to 2000 and cooperatively managing the high seas fisheries would have similar effects.

“The oceans are interconnected. Many important fish stocks live in both the high seas and coastal waters,” says co-author William Cheung, Nippon Foundation-Nereus Program Director of Science. “Although the high seas may seem far from the coast, effective management of high seas fisheries could benefit coastal waters in terms of productivity and thus help reduce climate change impacts.”

The study used a computer model to project catches of 30 important fish stocks that occur in both the high seas and coastal waters under two CO2 emission scenarios and three high seas management scenarios.

Strengthening high seas governance would also increase the resilience of coastal countries to climate change, especially in tropical countries where there is a high dependence on fisheries for food and livelihood. Under a “business-as-usual” CO2 emissions scenario, disproportionate impacts of climate change on countries in the South Pacific, Indo-Pacific, West African coast and west coast of Central America include decreases of over 30% of fish stocks due partly to migration of fish towards cooler waters.

“The scenarios of closing the high seas may greatly reduce the issue of inequity of benefits and impacts among different countries under climate change,” says co-author Vicky Lam, Nippon Foundation-Nereus Program Fellow at UBC.

The authors note that impacts felt in tropical countries will still be high though, even under best-case scenarios. Adaptation measures, such as diversifying employment opportunities or fishing a different type of fish, would need to be introduced.

Climate change may greatly impact tropical communities where there is a high dependancy on fisheries. Image: "Two fisherman put out a net to catch reef fish, Fumato'o, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands." Photo by Filip Milovac. WorldFish. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Cooperatively managing high seas fisheries may allow for more equity of benefits across countries. Image: "Reef fish are cooked on hot rocks, Santupaele village, Western Province, Solomon Islands." Photo by Filip Milovac. WorldFish. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But would it be possible to close the high seas to fishing?

“We recognize that it is a big challenge,” says Cheung. “Our study suggests that both the effective management of the high seas or its closure are effective in helping coastal waters to reduce climate change impacts. Thus, it may be on a spectrum within these scenarios that would be possible.”

“The findings of this paper suggest that the high seas can serve as a fish bank of the world by providing the insurance needed to make the whole global ocean more resilient,” says Rashid Sumaila, OceanCanada Director and co-author of the paper. “By closing it to fishing or seriously increasing the effectiveness of its management, the high seas can help us mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems.”

Additional authors include Nereus Program alumnus Miranda Jones(UNEP-WCMC) and Director of Policy Yoshitaka Ota.


About the Nippon Foundation-Nereus Program
The Nereus Program, a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation and the University of British Columbia Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, has engaged in innovative, interdisciplinary ocean research since its inception in 2011. The program is currently a global partnership of six leading marine science institutes with the aim of undertaking research that advances our comprehensive understandings of the global ocean systems across the natural and social sciences, from oceanography and marine ecology to fisheries economics and impacts on coastal communities. Visit for more information.

This research was supported by the Nippon Foundation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanity Research Council of Canada through the OceanCanada partnership grant project.

For further information or interview requests, please contact:
Lindsay Lafreniere
Communications Officer, Nereus Program
Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries
The University of British Columbia
[email protected]